SAN JOSE, Ca. February 28, 2012 — The recent diversion during this presidential election year of interjecting religion and religious beliefs into the fray is not normally usual. Politicians generally try to avoid dealing with topics centered upon religion because they are unwilling to step on people’s toes or to commit some gaffe regarding individual beliefs or specific belief systems while they are running for office. Obviously, it is a different story once they get elected.
However, in light of the fact that many Americans celebrated or remembered the birthday of George Washington on February 22nd, it stimulates a memory of profound words that President Washington shared with the country as he left public service. As he determined to no longer seek office, he offered up his famous “Farewell Address” to the general public.
The address has been regarded as one of the “world’s most remarkable documents” because it served as a humble notification from a man who was turning the control of the nation over to others and it offered a set of values that Washington hoped would assure the survival of a fledgling America. In the midst of this shared wisdom, he highlighted his regard for religion as being important to the political success of the nation.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens? The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.
Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
For those Americans who treasure religious freedom, these words are often the most referenced from his Farewell Address. President Washington viewed religion and morality as dual pillars of support for political stability and success and “props of the duties of men and citizens.” But of the two, he cautioned that based upon reason and experience, the nation’s morality could not survive without adherence to religious principle. This is a powerful statement and reflects how deeply Washington regarded religious values.
Oops! America has failed to remember this wise advice from the father of our country during our process of growing up. Today, there are more than a few who have made it into the hallowed halls of government and do “labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”
In fact, from this perspective, it seems to be at the heart of the issue of the Obama Administration’s battle with religious organizations across the spectrum of belief systems. Many now question whether the undermining of religion is at the basis of the recent mandate that religious organizations provide contraceptive devices (regardless of who pays) to their employees who need them (or demand them).
Many wise personages have recently weighed in on the actual implications and eventual consequences of such a national mandate. It is apparent that both morality and religion are bruised under such a law, but it is much more likely that those embracing one religious persuasion or another are offended to a much greater degree.
However, in reviewing some of the statements from representatives of different persuasions of the religious community at large, there does not seem to be a consensus of opinion as to whether this represents an actual abridgement of religious liberty or not. Unfortunately, those that are unclear may also not be that clear about the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Part of the First Amendment deals with religious liberty directly as it states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Unfortunately, this might get confusing when someone, intent on subverting the pillars of support, looks at the first part of the statement and concludes that this means that government and religion must be totally separated to avoid any sense of favoritism towards religion, but they neglect the second part which intends to deny those in governmental authority to interfere in the free exercise of religion. That seems fairly clear if one is not intent on undermining religious principles and practices.
Washington’s Farewell Address also cautioned the leaders of the new country against the harmful effects of political parties which stemmed from “the strongest passions of the human mind.” He expressed the attitude that the constitutional separation of powers with the system of checks and balances in the new government rendered political parties unnecessary and warned against the “Baneful effects of the Spirit of Party.” Again, it appears that wisdom offered by Washington was ignored as today Americans find themselves at the mercy of the two major parties who dominate the political arena.
Much of what Washington shared in his Farewell Address seems prophetic, but America did not hearken to his vision. This is disturbing in the sense that what George Washington represented as a human being was America. If he were to set foot upon the soil of this country at the present and observe what the United States has become, it would most assuredly be disturbing to him and likely to many of the other founding fathers. While many in government today argue upon the supposed moral high ground, it seems clear that the foundation of morality built upon secular and not religious values has propelled the country to where it finds itself today.
For the most part, it seems that the various religious factions have been content to fight amongst themselves as opposed to fighting the greater evil – the loss of religious values or the loss of religious liberty within the nation as it grew and developed over time. This was a concern to Washington as well. Despite his perceptive appraisal that the nation’s morality grows from the foundation of religious principles, he realized that religion (specifically Christianity) can also be a destructive force within society.
While President of the United States, Washington in one of his letters to Sir Edward Newenham, lamented:
“Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”
Of course, atheists and agnostics employ this quote in their cause against religion, but it does not eradicate Washington’s firm trust in the deeper value of religion to a society because his deepest hope was that religious bigotry and rivalry would diminish within a free society.
If President Washington were to set foot on American soil once again and view the fruits of his noble efforts, he may be quite disappointed and disheartened. But on the other hand, he may continue to express his deepest hopes for what could happen to a free people. In a letter to the members of the Swedenborgian New Church, he wrote:
“We have abundant reason to rejoice, that, in this land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened age, & in this land of equal liberty, it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the laws…”
In any event, President Washington’s view of the value of religion should be a guiding light for those who claim to have deep religious convictions because he would see it as something hopeful for the future of our nation. However, his words may again offer caution regarding the eradication of the very pillars of the foundation of America.
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