Teaching George Washington When Professors Aim to 'Stop Santorum'

Mary Grabar

2/22/2012 12:01:00 AM - 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.

Yet, even with such multiple safeguards and a contract that stands beyond the immediate interests of parties, Washington still reminds us of the importance of religion. He calls “religion and morality” the “indispensable supports” of the “dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity.” In fact, he implies that patriotism is impossible without “these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” It’s a sentence I emphasize. I ask students if they agree. Of course not, they almost unanimously say. One does not need to be religious to be patriotic. One does not need to believe in God to be moral.

Washington continues: “The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.”

Notice that Washington calls on the “mere politician” to respect religion and morality. Washington then claims, “A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.” (It’s no wonder that moderns who ascribe to the notion that religion is a private affair that should be divorced from political life would rather forget George Washington or wipe him from the history books.)

Furthermore, Washington maintains that morality emerges from religion, as he asks a rhetorical question: “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?” This leads to my question of why we ask those who testify in court to place their hands on the Bible. This inspires more looks of consternation among students who have been educated in the idea that any kind of insistence on religious faith is an expression of “intolerance.”

Washington finally ends that paragraph by stating point blank, “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.”

That is about as unequivocal a statement as one can get.

Earlier in the speech, Washington had cautioned about regional animosities. Reminding them of the common “religion, manners, habits, and political principles” they shared, Washington encouraged citizens to adopt the identity “American”.

This is where students are apt to point out the changes that have taken place in over 200 years. The United States is no longer as homogenous as it was back then, when the vast majority of Americans belonged to various denominations of Protestantism. Students echo the standard line about “diversity” that infuses our educational establishment. They parrot the notion that it is an expression of “intolerance” to state that our nation is based upon a common moral and religious foundation of Judeo-Christian principles.

Yet, in spite of their constant exposure to “diversity” and a “globalism,” students have almost no ability to place our form of government and society into a global context. I remind students of the historical fact that Christianity introduced the notion that all people are equal in the eyes of the Creator. I ask students about our most basic laws. Why are parents who abuse or kill their children prosecuted? After all, in Greek and Roman culture, the father had the prerogative of allowing his infant child to die of exposure. Why do we take care of our elderly, even beyond the point of their “usefulness” to us? After all, Eskimos and other primitive societies, simply abandoned the weak and elderly, sending them off on ice floes. Apparently, students today don’t hear about such practices, while they are constantly bombarded about the “social injustice” of our economic system.

So, why, I ask, do our laws follow this Judeo-Christian injunction against killing? Other primitive societies, and now professors of ethics, like Peter Singer at Princeton, do not see anything unethical about killing handicapped infants.

When looks of horror register on the faces of students when I tell them about Singer’s proposal to allow parents to kill handicapped children, I tell them that their recoil at the thought of killing babies indicates the fact that even if they are not practicing Christians or Jews they have imbibed the values of a Judeo-Christian culture that values life. Those like Singer, quite significantly, begin by rejecting the Bible, which provides the premise that life is sacred.

The professor who works in a non-tenured position, as I do, broaches such topics with trepidation, lest any student (often called the “customer”) complain to the administration.

But I was pleasantly surprised when several students told me how much they had enjoyed and appreciated the discussion about religion in Washington’s speech. One, who is a Hindu, stayed after class, to tell me this.

Yet, if and when they follow today’s political debates in the news, students are likely to hear attacks upon Republican candidates’ religiosity and lack of respect for the “separation of church and state.” This is especially true about Rick Santorum who has been most outspoken about the importance of religion in public life.

In the classroom students are likely to hear views like those of Georgetown University Professor Jacques Berlinerblau, who charges Republicans with “secular-baiting” in his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He claims Newt Gingrich pioneered the genre and Mitt Romney took it a “milestone” in its “evolution.” It is Santorum, however, whom he charges with demonizing Secularism, by reminding audiences of the atheistic nature of the “’French Revolution, moving onto the facists, and the Nazis and the communists and the Baathists.’”

Instead of considering the historical veracity of Santorum’s statement, Berlinerblau attributes nefarious and crazy motives to Santorum: “It is easy, lucrative, and even pleasurable, to pulverize sinister Secularism. It rallies the base, secures contributions, and helps conservative voters focus on demonic (i.e., liberal, Democratic) forces possessing our political system.” Running with his theory, Berlinerblau assigns an all-or-nothing faith in “divine revelation,” as if Santorum imagines he has a direct line to God. Berlinerblau then posits that religionists like Santorum might hear different things from God and thus have no basis upon which to decide policies. Such “anti-secular rhetoric,” he maintains, is “at its core . . . a demagogic evasion” (italics retained).

After he has whipped himself up to making Santorum a dictatorial theocrat, Berlinerblau concludes ominously, “Santorum and others will keep baiting secularism, and evading difficult issues, until someone stops them.”

In class, it will be worth reminding students about how the French Revolutionists and the Soviet Communists did first kill all the priests and nuns. It will be worth reminding students of the freedom voters have in drawing upon religious principles when they exercise their right to vote—in spite of many professors’ desire to simply “stop” people of religious faith, like Rick Santorum.