April 23, 2006


Faithful Community Life (Karl Zinsmeister, May 2006, The American Enterprise)

This issue of The American Enterprise doesn’t concern itself with all of the ways Judeo-Christianity has influenced us, but focuses specifically on how religion creates social bonds—how it knits people and communities together. The common view among liberal intellectuals today is that religion is something that divides peo­ple, a “wedge,” a force that corrodes unity. Everything from today’s “culture wars” to the recent marauding of disaffected Muslims through European cities is blamed vaguely on “too much religion.”

That is a crude reduction of the actual effects of religious belief on most people. It’s true that religion is a potent influence on all aspects of a civilization. “The beginning of culture is cult,” reminds Michael Novak. Often, religious views have soaked so deeply into the social fabric that most citizens are no longer even conscious of them, even as their culture continues to be shaped by echoes of faith.

In particular, it is the religious impulse that makes typical men and women capa­ble of concern for their fellows. The verdict of history, says Novak, is that “apart from the worship of God, human beings cannot transcend themselves in the large num­bers needed to sustain a civilization. Unless human beings have a vision of something beyond the bounds of their own natures, they cannot be pulled out of themselves.”

America has a richer and more varied tradition of religious community-making than any other country on Earth. The Puritans, Quakers, Catholics, and other persecuted believers who first arrived on these shores came specifically to set up faithful societies denied to them elsewhere. Anabaptists, Shakers, Jews, Moravians, and many others followed them across the ocean so they could cohere with other worshippers in congregations, neighborhoods, and towns. Then there were rafts of homegrown religious communities: pioneer Method­ists, Christian Scientists, the Oneida Movement, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lubavitchers, Latter-Day Saints, and many others.

Religious communities in the U.S. are not just some his­torical remnant. Mormons, Chabadniks, various Anabaptists, orthodox Catholics, and broad spectrums of evangelical Prot­estants are burgeoning in number and prospering within close-knit home places sprinkled from New York City to Nashville; Wheaton, Illinois to Moscow, Idaho; Grand Rapids, Michigan to Waco, Texas. There are entire cities in this country—as dif­ferent as Provo, Utah and Kiryas Joel in upstate New York—that are built on religious fraternity. Informal groupings of believers lean on their fellow saints in towns like Santa Paula, California (profiled on page 33), inside hundreds of megachurches in a range of U.S. localities (page 28), and even in brand new com­munities built around a religious core—like Ave Maria, now being constructed on Florida’s prosperous Gulf Coast.

Religious communities continue to attract people because they function differently, and feel quite distinct from other places. In a statistics-laden paper given at the American Enter­prise Institute, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber recently pre­sented some pioneering documentation of this. People who reside near co-religionists not only participate in worship at a higher rate than more isolated believers (as you might expect), but also conduct themselves differently in other ways. Being surrounded by a community of believers inspires more work, study, and marriage, and less divorce and freeloading. A 10 per­cent increase in the density of co-religionists in your neighbor­hood, Gruber found, leads to an extra half year of education, an increase in income, a 4 percent rise in marriages and equivalent decline in divorces, and 16 percent less welfare use.

“Religion…is more needed in democratic republics than in any other,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. The untrammelled individual autonomy fostered by U.S.-style gov­ernance needs to be balanced by a sense of responsibility and communal loyalty. Only when religious parameters discipline personal appetites and imbue citizens with authentic concern for others will a people be able to live entirely free, without despots over them, Tocqueville concludes.

Thankfully, some invisible spring (which has gone dry in Europe and other places) keeps refilling American breasts with religious convictions and truths.

While the End of History will force everyone to ape Anglo-American lberal democracy -- with its capitalism, protestantism, and parliamentarianism -- because so few societies are fed by that stream the End will not work out terribly well for most of them, as witness Europe.

Washington's Faith and the Birth of America (Michael Novak, Jana Novak, May 2006, The American Enterprise)

So how did George Washington persevere? As he acknowledged many times, he trusted “Providence.” George Washington had a silent ally to whom he regularly gave thanks, publicly and privately. [...]

Some historians seem to fear religious interpretations of Washington. More recent biographers often suggest Washington was at best a lukewarm Anglican, that he was more a deist than a Christian, and that his concept of “Providence” was closer to the Greek or Roman “Fate” or “Fortuna” than to the Biblical God. Yet Washington’s own stepgranddaughter, “Nelly” Custis, thought his words and actions were so plain and obvious that she could not understand how anybody failed to see that he had always lived as a serious Christian. As she wrote to one of Washington’s early biographers:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o’clock, where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun, and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions, I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray “that they may be seen of men.” He communed with his God in secret.

At times Washington spoke boldly, once urging the Delaware chiefs, “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all the religion of Jesus Christ.” For the most part, however, Washington kept his religious beliefs and sentiments private. Such undemonstrativeness was common among Anglicans of his time and station, as was resistance to “enthusiasm,” and a preference for decorum and formality. (Nonetheless, some Virginian Anglicans, like Washington’s best friend Bryan Fairfax and Virginia governor Patrick Henry, did write movingly of their spiritual struggles as Anglicans, at least in private letters and diaries.) The fact that Washington sometimes spent a whole day in prayer and fasting, and that he was unusually attentive to his duties as church vestryman, may have said enough in Washington’s own mind about his seriousness in matters religious. [...]

There is some dispute concerning how religious most of America was during the years of the War of Independence. The shortage of clergymen and even churches was always severe along the paths of the westward migration. On the other hand, recent studies suggest that religious practice was more intense than previously thought. The “First Great Awakening,” a broad renewal of religious conviction, was slowly spreading through the colonies, even in the Anglican South, threatening the laws of religious establishment, for example, in Virginia.

Thus, it can be no surprise that at the first meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in September 1774, when news was received of the sudden outbreak of war in Boston, the very first motion on the floor was for a prayer to seek the guidance of Almighty God. Resistance immediately erupted—not because prayer was thought inappropriate, but because John Jay and others protested that they could not pray in the same terms as other people present (Anabaptists with Quakers, Congregationalists with Episcopalians, Unitarians with Presbyterians). Sam Adams settled the dispute by announcing loudly that he was no bigot and could pray along with any minister so long as he was a patriot.

And so George Washington meditated alongside Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Jay, Edward Rutledge, and Richard Henry Lee. In a letter written to Abigail a week later, John Adams described the electrifying effect of that prayer, which was from Psalm 35. “It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning,” he explained to his wife. “It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here.” [...]

The stresses never drove Washington off balance—for he had learned to work with, not against, reality and the rough edges of life. This didn’t mean blind acceptance, however. He was intent on making his fighting force worthy of God’s favor, and worked hard to clean up their behavior. “We can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly,” stated one of his orders. “Let vice and immorality of every kind be discouraged, as much as possible, in your brigade; and as a chaplain is allowed to each regiment, see that the men regularly attend divine Worship,” stipulated another.

As he had while leading Virginian forces earlier in life, he put chaplains in position throughout his army, and had the government pay their salaries: $40 per month. He issued many orders enjoining his troops to pray, fast, attend worship, and observe days of thanksgiving. Washington insisted that soldiers respect the free exercise of religion among local citizens. In New England, he forbade the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day with its fierce anti-Catholic symbolism.

One of his orders stated that “All chaplains are to perform divine service tomorrow, and on every succeeding Sunday…. The commander in chief expects an exact compliance with this order, and that it be observed in future as an invariable rule of practice—and every neglect will be considered not only a breach of orders, but a disregard to decency, virtue and religion.” Washington grew even more explicit as the war dragged on: “While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian.”

Despite urgings from the Congress to live off the land, Washington ordered his troops to go hungry rather than force citizens to part with victuals at bayonet point. He forbade his troops under pain of death to utter blasphemies, even profanity. They must live among the people as Christian soldiers, he explained, and demonstrate the moral character of the American cause.

At the same time, experience had taught Washington that it is wrong to expect too much from virtue alone, and that it is wise not to be surprised by failure, poor performance, or even disgraceful behavior, for these will most assuredly occur from time to time. A great commander must aim his men high, to draw more from them than seems humanly possible. Yet while leading his citizen army Washington often tasted the bitter cup of human weakness and failure. In this realism, he acted as a Christian general.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2006 9:08 AM

Recall also that Washington approved courts-martial of those convicted of unspeakable crimes against nature.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 23, 2006 7:37 PM