Mary Grabar

In an age and time when I find most of my college students unfamiliar with the story of Adam and Eve or the origin of the phrase, “judge not lest ye be judged,” I enter discussions about religion with some caution. Almost universally my students do not believe that religious belief is necessary for morality, and seem to be offended by the very concept.

But when one discusses the speeches of our earlier presidents, as I do in my composition classes, it is necessary to address religion’s role.

So last week, as we discussed George Washington’s Farewell Address, I asked students to recall the major points he made. Because several of them had already studied the speech in high school, they listed points most emphasized by teachers: his cautions about foreign entanglements, factional discord, and debt. Not many recalled his injunction to use the Constitution as a safeguard against “internal enemies.” Only one recalled his reminder about the importance of religion.

Although it does not take up much of the speech, it is an important passage, and one worth recalling in today’s age when libertarian ideals seem to motivate most college students and when many conservative pundits caution us about focusing on social issues.

But Washington reminds us, as do the other Founding Fathers, of why the Constitution is necessary in the first place.

The Constitution is structured according to a vision of mankind as inherently flawed, as marked by Original Sin. This view of human nature is what sets apart those who established the longest-lasting Constitution from the utopian idealists who see human nature as essentially good. Those human beings who are flawed by selfishness or irrationality (as they see it) can be shaped by the right social and political forces—and woe to the man who resists the efforts by the utopian theorists to make him good! We have seen that in the death tolls of such schemes.

But in Washington’s view, because character alone cannot be trusted, a division of powers helps provide checks against branches of government and of individuals. Washington echoes James Madison.

Mary Grabar

Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia and teaches in Atlanta. She is organizing the Resistance to the Re-Education of America at Her writing can be found at