Royalty and religion are a lot alike. Both present themselves to the world most prominently in magnificent and beautiful ceremonies. (Likewise, when not involved in beautiful and magnificent ceremonies, royals and clergy alike spend much of their time performing bureaucratic-type tasks and in conversation and small-talk with all sorts of people). Both royalty and religion operate most profoundly in the world of symbols and both depend heavily on emotion and sentiment for people’s affection and loyalty. Finally, I suspect that to the rationalist elites – whether of the modern or the post-modern variety – royalty and religion are both likewise thought to be rather nonsensical and anachronistic.
In contemporary Europe, there are seven hereditary kingdoms. Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Spain each have a reigning king. Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom each have a reigning queen. In addition, Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy (presided over by a Grand Duke) and Liechtenstein is a sovereign principality (presided over by a prince), each of whom ranks as a “Royal Highness.” Finally, there is the Principality of Monaco, presided over by a Prince, who ranks as a “Serene Highness.”
In recent decades, royalty has regretably become conflated with celebrity. Monarchs and princes have come to be considered as celebrities, covered as such by the more sensationalist media, and increasingly related to as such by ordinary people. Perhaps never was this more evident than in the bizarre cult of the late Princess of Wales, mother of today’s groom, both during her tragic life and most especially in the aftermath of her tragic death. Just as in politics, where the complex details of, say, the federal budget, cannot compare as an attention-getter with the who’s up?/who’s down? Media coverage of inside-the-beltway politics, so too the constitutional duties and functions of royalty cannot compare as attention-getters with the celebrity-like personal problems and foibles of princes.
To the rationalist, it may seem that popular interest in today’s British royal wedding is precisely another – extreme – example of precisely such celebrity fascination. And, in fact, for may it may be no more than that. But there is something deeper at work.
The hereditary principle does not always produce the best possible sovereigns. In the British case, it has succeeded amazingly well in producing the eminently worthy Elizabeth II, having however earlier failed so seriously in producing the eminently unworthy Edward VIII. What the hereditary principle does do, however, is provide a people with royal family. In the life-cycles of princes – their births, their marriages, their deaths – a society experiences an icon of the highs and lows of family life that are the primary preoccupation of most people most of the time.
Fairytales aside, royal marriages have not typically been about love. But, like most marriages of most people in most societies for most of history, they have been very much about family. Any wedding – a fortiori a royal wedding – is about the family as the primary human institution, the institution charged with the formation and socialization of the next generation. As someone once said, a wedding is about the continuation of the human story. A wedding testifies to our collective commitment to continue the human story (for at least one more generation).
A royal family also symbolizes that the nation is, in some meaningful sense, also a family. Perhaps, if we Americans had such a sense of ourselves, then we would find the idea of paying taxes, for example, less some sort of imposition on our liberties and more an example of what we owe to one another as a family who are all in this together. A royal wedding, then (for those nations lucky enough to have them) serves as a kind of expression of collective hope that the nation’s story too will continue.