Two hundred seventeen years ago today, on September 19, 1796, as George Washington was nearing the completion of his second and final term as the President of the United States, he published a farewell address to the nation. In addition to announcing his intention not to seek a third term, Washington gives the young nation his counsel regarding the challenges it will face. One of the most often quoted passages from the address relates the prosperity of the state to religion and morality:
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 connexions 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 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. (27)
That Washington speaks of religion and morality merely as necessary supports for political prosperity is clearly too limited a view, but he is correct in seeing their connection. Religion and morality do not find their terminus in political prosperity but are supports for it precisely because harmony among men is most easily achieved when men are directed toward God.
Washington calls religion and morality “great pillars of human happiness,” and this they are, but any happiness in this life is ultimately rooted in the true happiness of the life to come. For the Christian, morality is the means to this happiness, and true religion brings us to true happiness itself: blessed communion in heaven with almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But because Washington does see the fundamental role religion ought to have in a democratic society, I wonder if he too would be worried that the “nones” far outnumber the nuns in the U.S. today. The gradual loss of religious belief and practice in our country should remind those of us who do believe in God not to take this gift for granted. We must take the time to consider God regularly in our lives so that we might be rightly ordered toward him as the highest good. The need to take time for religious practice can be seen in the importance given to rest in the Jewish and Christian religions. To take a day each week to step back from the less important matters of work to focus on the worship of God allows us to make sure our lives are truly in order.
Exactly fifty years after Washington published his farewell address, Our Lady appeared to two children in La Salette, France, weeping with deep concern that Christians were impiously dismissing the importance of rest and divine worship on Sunday. Her message was ultimately one of hope, however, in the possibility of reconciliation with God through prayer and penance.
As Catholics, we ought to be grateful for the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays because it supports us in that which is indispensable in our quest for happiness in God: the offering of ourselves to him through the perfect form of divine worship given to us by Christ. What a blessing it is to have a day each week set aside in order to make sure we not only remember where our lives are going but also unite ourselves to the only offering that can get us there.
On this 217th anniversary of Washington’s farewell address and 167th anniversary of the apparition at La Salette, we pray firstly for our nation, that, through the intercession of Our Lady of La Salette, all citizens of our country will be given the grace to see the importance of religious worship for themselves and for society. We pray, too, that our leaders will be given the grace not to prohibit the free exercise of religion so that we might truly be “one nation under God . . . with liberty and justice for all.”
Image: From The Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774