Author’s note: I went a bit deep today. This article isn’t going to be for everybody.
On my Face Book video today, I talked about George Washington, described by many historians as being the “indispensable man.” Had the 23 year-old Washington been killed at the Battle of The Monongahela during the French and Indian War, instead of just having two horses shot out from under him, America may not have won Independence, created a constitutional republic, or established itself as a fledgling nation with a future. How America’s history would have been different I do not know, but I have to surmise it would have been worse.
When you go to the U.S. Capitol, a building I consider to be America’s temple, and stand in the rotunda looking up to that magnificent dome, you see a painting, “The Apotheosis of Washington.” Apotheosis means deification. Washington sits like a god looking down on his creation, the United States of America.
Washington was no god, of course. He was a remarkable, yet flawed, man who carried himself with such dignity, he may have seemed to his contemporaries to be at least a demi-god. He was likened to the Roman statesman and general, Cincinnatus, who left his farm to go back into the service of Rome, accept the title of dictator, solve the crisis, and then relinquish his power and return to his farm. Relinquishing power in a republic is the most patriotic thing any leader can do. Cincinnatus personified civic virtue in Rome. Washington does the same in America.
Civic virtue – there’s a concept that has gone by the wayside. Defined as the dedication of the citizens to the common welfare of each other, even at the cost of their individual needs, civic virtue has given way to a twisted form of libertarianism – “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do or who I have to help, or tolerate. Society be damned.”
In his Farewell Address, Washington admonished his countrymen to embrace religious principles and private and public morality. Christians often quote this passage from the address as evidence that the Father of our Country was a man of great faith just like them, and he wanted America to be a virtuous nation. I believe this is true. Washington, who identified as a Christian, would have wanted Christian virtue to prevail in America. But his statement on the principles of religion was only a small part of his Farewell Address.
Embracing religious principles and private and public morality was to Washington a means to an end. The largest portion of his address was devoted to that end — national unity. A portion of his address reads as follows (paraphrase to at the end):
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But it is easy to foresee that from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken your minds the convictions of this truth; as this is the point of your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed.
Paraphrase: National unity is vital (the point of your political fortress) if the Republic is to survive. Slippery people with agendas exclusive of the survival of the Republic, i.e., zealots and extremists, would rather wreck the place than not see their agendas succeed. Washington advised Americans to take a hard stand against extremism.
He went on in his address to extol the virtues of the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution, to warn against foreign entanglements, and to deal with some of the issues of the day.
It is later in the address when he brings up the importance of religious principles as a bulwark of the Republic. He obviously saw religion as a calming, pacifying influence on the passions of the people, a defense against the extremism that is such a danger to democracy, a linchpin for unity. Like the other Founders, Washington was well aware of the hazards of religious sectarianism. The Protestant Reformation had spawned dozens of wars in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, most notably the Thirty Years War in Europe and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Britain.
Like the other founders, he hoped that codifying separation of church and state and guaranteeing freedom of religious expression in the First Amendment, such strife could be avoided in America. But alas, what Robert Heinlein said is true, “Any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” History has shown that this is a disaster for both the government and religion. The Founders were justifiably concerned that religious extremism was a threat to the freedom a constitutional republic was supposed to foster.
As it turned out, religion has not been the mollifying agent in society Washington had hoped it would be. There have been times when religion was a calming and rational force. Our time is not one of them. It’s hard to say what Washington and his peers would think of the religious fervor that has led to so much civil angst and uproar. I am sure he would be upset over religious zealots quoting from his Farewell Address as justification for their unseemly and fractious behavior.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:17-18