The Role of the Church— Part II

Garry Gamble

“In 1796, as his second term in office drew to a close, President George Washington chose not to seek re-election. Mindful of the precedent his conduct set for future presidents, Washington feared that if he were to die while in office, Americans would view the presidency as a lifetime appointment. Instead, he decided to step down from power, providing the standard of a two-term limit that would eventually be enshrined in the Twenty- Second Amendment to the Constitution.

“Washington informed the American people of his retirement in a public letter that would come to be known as his “Farewell Address.” James Madison had written a draft in 1792 when Washington had contemplated retiring after his first term. Retaining only the first few paragraphs of Madison’s version, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton conducted an extensive rewrite, with Washington providing the final edits. Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser published the address on September 19, 1796.” (Shira Lurie, Ph.D. candidate in Early American History at the University of Virginia, George Washington’s Farewell Address, Digital Encyclopedia.)

One of the most referenced parts of Washington’s 7,641-word letter is his strong support of the importance of religion and morality in promoting private and public happiness and in promoting the political prosperity of the nation. Washington cautioned against the belief that the nation’s morality can be maintained without religion:

“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 [contentment]. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert 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.”

Washington referred to religious principle as the foundation of public morality.

As noted by historian John Avlon, “Once celebrated as a civic Scripture, more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s Farewell Address is now almost forgotten.” National Public Radio noted in 2017, “When Lin-Manuel [Miranda] brought it back for [the Broadway musical] ‘Hamilton,’ it was really the first time in a long time it had gotten that kind of attention.”

Impressively, according to the United States Senate, “No Senate tradition has been more steadfastly maintained than the annual reading of President George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address. Every year near the end of February the Senate holds a reading to the People of the United States. The Senate tradition began on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War.”

Minnesota State Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was appointed to read Washington’s Address in 1956, inscribed in the black, leather-bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate, “Every American should study this memorable message. It gives one a renewed sense of pride in our republic,” Humphrey wrote. “It arouses the wholesome and creative emotions of patriotism and love of country.”

The Church thrived in 19th century America. Its impact remained so conspicuous in the early decades of this century that in 1922 a British observer called the United States “a nation with the soul of a church.”

The famous French political scientist and commentator

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, published in 1835, Americans consider religion “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” Tocqueville further contended, “Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration [state of abnormality] of intellect and a sort of violent distortion of their true nature; they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments. Unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind.”

That religion was necessary for “public prosperity” was an opinion that found expression not only in Congress but in the state legislatures of the new American republic as well. The connection between religion and the public welfare seemed so obvious to the public at large that it was articulated by its representatives at every level of government.

According to the Library of Congress’ major exhibition, “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” which was presented at the close of the 20th century, “The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion throughout the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government.”

John Adams, who followed Washington’s presidency, claimed that statesmen “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”

In May of 2014, a year into my term as county commissioner, I attended a County Leaders Forum in San Francisco as part of the National Association of Counties (NACo), “Growing Stronger Placers” series.

During an early morning panel discussion— facilitated by two representatives from then-President Obama’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—to explore how county leaders can leverage social capital and foster relationships among civic and community leaders, the government facilitator insisted the following:

“The Church has a moral obligation to respond in time of need.”

I hoisted my arm from note taking and was promptly acknowledged by the facilitator.

“Sir,” I responded, “you referenced the word ‘moral’ in your statement. I would ask, ‘Where does morality come from, if not from God?’ Therefore, the Church has always responded in time of human need, even when we ourselves are found wanting The Church’s response is not because government demands it; rather it is out of our willing obedience to God’s word.”

“Liberty cannot be established without
morality, nor morality without faith.”
~Alexis de Tocqueville,
Democracy in America

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