December 23, 1783, was a very important day in American history. On that day George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the United States of America’s Continental Army after finally and amazingly prevailing over the British forces, the strongest Army and Navy in the world. Washington had won independence for the thirteen colonies.
Washington intended to return to civilian life. He was admired, adored, virtually worshiped by his troops and the politicians and the people. It would have been simple, the most natural thing in the world, for him to extend his authority and become the new ruler of the colonies. Indeed, most expected it. Many wanted him to do just that. Many would have made him king. Instead, Washington resigned on December 23, 1783. It was a “second shot heard around the world,” someone has said.
There is a famous painting of the scene by John Trumbull, who wrote to his brother back in London, “Washington’s resignation excites astonishment and admiration of this part of the world. ’Tis a conduct so novel, so incredible to people, who far from giving up powers they possess are willing to convulse the Empire to acquire more.”
Clearly something unique was beginning to emerge among the thirteen colonies, a new notion of limited political authority: political authority dependent not on military power, nor upon heredity and royalty, but on the consent of the people. People, the Declaration of Independence said, were endowed with unalienable rights. Unheard of.
Washington was easily the most prominent and popular individual among the newly independent colonies. After resigning his military commission, he was persuaded to run for president. He did and won and intended to serve a four-year term and return to his beloved Mount Vernon. He served a second term and again he could easily have extended his authority and the authority of his office, could easily have become a dictator. Instead, he resigned a second time in 1796 and delivered one of the most important speeches in our history.
In it, Washington expresses his concerns that the new republic would collapse “under the pressures of sectionalism and partisanship.” The European cure for sectionalism and partisanship was monarchy, which Washington regarded as worse than the ailment.
He warned his fellow citizens of the dangers of sectionalism, an “overgrown military establishment,” urged then to preserve “reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power.” He concluded by reiterating his
major concern that citizens should “moderate the fury of party spirit and guard against the ‘impostures of a pretended patriotism.’” Talk about relevant still!
By the time Washington completed his second term, we had a remarkable, new constitution. Washington’s farewell is important for what it omits to mandate: a state religion. Washington agreed with Benjamin Franklin that “every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” The states, by the way, were not there yet. Massachusetts had a reputation for executing Quakers, particularly women. State revenue supported the Puritan Church. Connecticut’s constitution said government is based on the clear Word of God. Vermont extended religious freedom to Protestants. Maryland guaranteed liberty to all professing Christians.
Washington’s speech was reassuring to “uneasy Quakers, frightened Baptists, nervous Roman Catholics, fastidious Presbyterians, meddling Anglicans” (and terrified Jews), says Princeton historian Clifton Black. Earlier Washington had signed the Treaty of Tripoli, a Muslim state, that declared “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” and he wrote a presidential letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, assuring them of their freedom to exercise their religion, invoking God’s blessing on their endeavors.
Washington and the Founders understood the risks involved in extending and preserving freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. People can worship God wherever and however they choose—or choose not to worship at all. The church is free to sink or swim on its own without government sponsorship and financial support. Citizens are free to disagree with the government, criticize the government, demonstrate publicly for what they believe to be important. The result was and is a system of government that is sometimes confusing and exasperating and noisy.
The Bible itself describes a history of contentiousness between religion and political authority and the beginnings of the impulse towards freedom. The prophets of Israel, like Jeremiah, were a thorn in the side and a pain in the neck to kings.
Prophets are not easy to get along with. They complain about how things are; they criticize the establishment; they embarrass the king by standing outside the gates of the royal palace pounding on the door and demanding justice for the poor and marginalized. They are a nuisance and an embarrassment; they keep invoking God to support their position; and they frequently end up in jail.
In our first reading, Jeremiah walks up to the gates of the temple in Jerusalem and says, “Hear the word of the Lord. Amend your ways. Stop oppressing the abused, the widowed and orphaned. Stop shedding innocent blood.” It’s not the kind of thing the king, government, or the high priest wants to hear. It landed Jeremiah in the stocks and then prison, where the king’s men urged his execution.
In the readings from the Acts of the Apostles, six centuries later, two followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was put to death for sedition and disturbing the Roman peace, are in trouble with the authorities. Peter and John have been arrested for preaching in public and stirring up trouble, are flogged and ordered to cease and desist from talking publicly about Jesus. They disobey. They show up in the morning, in the same place, still talking about Jesus. Arrested again, this time for deliberate civil disobedience and ordered again to stop it, Peter says one of the most profoundly revolutionary things anybody ever said: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Some things are worth defending no matter what. Truth is. Reality is. Facts are. Accurate information is. What’s also worth struggling for is truth over falsehood. Reality vs conspiracy. Facts instead of lies. Accurate information overcoming dangerous propaganda.
Of course, people are free to pursue as much reality as they want. Choosing to accept lies instead of facts is an option. But nobody would do this in their own personal life, nor want someone to do that toward them. What I mean is that people don’t do well when their closest loved ones lie, spin conspiracy theories to justify their behavior, share inaccurate information about themselves. We know falsehood leads to lack of trust in our personal lives with each other. Of course, we can choose to live a lie and throw lies around, but the cost is to lose people we want to live with, love, and have trust us or us trust them.
A nation, a country, can’t live well either if lies, conspiracies, falsehood replace truth, facts, and reality. Democracy may be messy but that’s not the same thing as malignant. Democracy has a moral code in its DNA. Call it civility. Call it reasonableness. Call it rule of law that sees all as equal at some most basic level. Call it a shared trust. Color it all these. Lies, falsehood, unreality, conspiracy, total lack of trust do not coexist with democracy and its DNA. Intertwined, one must grow stronger and survive. Both can’t.
Love for our country, for the constitutional democracy that is the heart and mind of our country,is not an exclusive, intolerant love but an expansive
love. In his book This I Believe, Colin Powell writes, “I believe in an America . . . that each day gives new immigrants the same gift my parents received. An America that lives by a constitution that inspires freedom and democracy around the world. An America with a big, open, charitable heart that reaches out to people in need around the world. An America that sometimes seems confused and is always noisy. That noise has a name; it’s called democracy.”
We see this openness to others in the example of the Founders rejecting the idea of a Christian republic. Instead, they created an atmosphere of liberty in which people are free to believe or not believe, free to support religion or ignore it. To everyone’s surprise, it is in that rare atmosphere of liberty that religion has thrived uniquely and consistently. Now it may be strange to hear a pastor say that was the right thing to do, to create a country in which all people are free to worship or not worship, but it shouldn’t be. After all, who’s to say the religion I wish to believe in and align with would be the one supported by the government.
Our country’s greatest strength has been its diversity of people, perspectives, purposes. Acknowledging and accepting that we are not the same, yet equal still in the sight of the law permits our country to grow into its best ideas and highest ideals. Today we must continue to make declarations of equality true in reality, realities of all kinds, economic, social, political, civil, criminal, and judicial. This is a country worthy of great devotion and struggle, of God’s grace and providential care.
Can the church say Amen?