The Reading Room

The King, the Coronation, and Us: Two nations Separated By a Common Tradition

Unless you have been living under an upturned mountain by now you likely know that this past Saturday Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor (good luck getting all that on to his driver’s license!) was crowned King Charles III of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth. More likely though, you were probably one of the estimated 85 million people in the United States who caught at least some parts of the coronation on TV or YouTube. (Approximately 20 million people in the UK tuned in live to watch their new monarch ascend the throne.) 
And if you did happen to see any parts of the extravagant service you, like me, may have been thunderstruck by how religious the ceremony was. From the simple fact that the coronation took place in a church (Westminster Abbey) to the near-constant presence of clergy, crosses, prayers, and choir music, as well as the fact that the ceremony was emceed by the highest-ranking cleric in the Church of England—the Archbishop of Canterbury—you couldn’t have been faulted for thinking that you were witnessing a Sunday mass that incidentally happened to—oh yeah!—have a King and Queen and sizeable royal entourage in attendance.
It was particularly strange for us Americans, for whom the only officially religious moment we tend to observe during the presidential inauguration—the closest equivalent event we have to a coronation—comes in the form of the oath of office, wherein the president solemnly swears to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.” That the latter four words are not part of the official oath of office—they were added (according to legend) by George Washington after having taken his first oath of office, and have been uttered by every president since at least Franklin D. Roosevelt, if not earlier—underscore how starkly different we are from Great Britain. We are, as it were, two nations separated by a common tradition. 
That tradition is the Judeo-Christian legacy of government in ancient Israel. The ways that the United States and the United Kingdom go about enshrining our new respective heads of state seem to have about as much in common as the way that Manchester United and the Kansas City Chiefs play football. But those differences may be less great than we think. We are merely emphasizing two (albeit starkly different) sides of the same biblical coin. 
The omnipresence of religion in the King’s coronation, as many have explained, is meant to evoke the way in which Britain views its monarch as a continuation of the kings of biblical Israel. We can most clearly see how the British king is seen as preserving the legacy of the ancient Judean and Israelite kings in the anointing segment of the coronation—the only part of the ceremony that was considered so holy that it was screened off from our view. King Charles was anointed with oil taken from the Mount of Olives, the elevation in Jerusalem that overlooks the Temple Mount (and the location, according to Jewish legend, from whence the resurrection of the dead will commence during the end of days). Just as the kings of ancient Israel were anointed with oil by the prophets—the most influential religious leaders of the pre-clergy era (the first kings of Israel, Saul and David, were anointed by the prophet Samuel [see I Samuel 9 and I Samuel 16])—so too was Charles anointed with oil from that region by the most important cleric of the state church of present-day Britain. And just as Charles swore to remain a “true Protestant” and to preserve and protect the Church of England—to continue to be its preeminent “Defender of the Faith”—so too was the King of Israel tasked with remaining true to the Torah and to preserve and protect the laws of God. (See Deuteronomy 17:18.)
In the United States, however, our much more Spartan enshrinement ceremony, like our tradition of government more generally, emphasizes how we view ourselves as the continuation of biblical Israel—an aspect of the American character expressed most memorably by John Winthrop (Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) in his 1630 “City on a Hill” address. While we do not anoint our presidents with oil from the Holy Land, we do—unlike the United Kingdom—maintain a strict separation between religion and state. Although the kings of biblical Israel were anointed by prophets and were charged with upholding the Torah, that is where their similarities to the kings and queens of England ends. Otherwise, it is we in the United States whose heads of state are more similar to biblical monarchs, who were heads of the Jewish state but not heads of the Jewish religion. The British monarch’s role as head of the Church of England could not be more different than the biblical vision of the monarch as being charged with governing while leaving the role of religious leadership firmly in the hands of the prophets and the priests. (Accordingly, when the Hasmoneans—the priests who led the Maccabee rebellion during the late-Second Temple era and from whose heroism the festival of Chanukah originated—violated the biblical separation between religion and state by assuming the kingship, later commentators, most notably the Ramban [the thirteenth-century Catalan sage Moses Nachmanides] [1], harshly criticized them for doing so.)
King Charles’ coronation thus may have been an event that had all the grandeur that we would normally expect for the enthroning of a Solomonic king. But we in America, through our more modest forms of government and leadership investitures, have just as much of a role to play in preserving the legacy of the biblical kings.  
[1]  See his commentary to Genesis 49:10. According to Nachmanides the Hasmoneans were punished for their improper ascendance to the throne by having their line wiped out by the Roman puppet King Herod.