16 February 2009

Happy President's Day?



Today the calendar says "President's Day."

But it really isn't so.

U.S. Code Section 6103(a) of title 5 does indicate, however, that the third Monday in February is to be celebrated as George Washington's birthday. With no disrespect to President Lincoln et al. intended, this isn't (officially) a day to celebrate all the presidents, or even the concept of the office of president. Now, I'm not a right-wing nut-job Founding-Father-worshipper or anything, but I took some time recently to learn more about the founding era of this place I call home. And, frankly, I feel gypped by my public school education. And really annoyed at what passes today for "knowledge" about our country's history, especially the role of Christianity and traditional morality in the public square and in government. Frankly, I was actually shocked to learn that what I thought I knew often wasn't so. Some things I thought were just untrue. Some were misleading over-generalizations. And there was a lot that I didn't know that I didn't know, ya know? If you think I'm crazy or are curious, check out anything at Wall Builders. But, I don't want to go off on a tangent...

This post will be about President George Washington. He's earned it.

In the 19th century, Washington's birthday grew into an important national holiday, celebrated with festivities and speeches given in his honor. The holiday reflected the pervasive influence Washington had on our society. Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of him was placed prominently in millions of American homes. Schoolchildren repeated from memory Washington's Farewell Address, which became an integral thread of the very fabric of our culture.

Over the years, Washington's legend grew and grew, as happens with important figures in history. Even though we've come to realize that he probably never uttered those famous cherry tree words, it was believable for so long because people knew of his impeccable character. That is what made it believable.

Then, a couple of centuries after his life, something happened to George Washington. (Or, actually, to us.) He suddenly became a man of dubious character, the supposed father of illegitimate children, and a secularist or a deist who didn't really care much about religion, Christianity in particular. The man simply couldn't have been what we had always thought and it became socially embarrassing to think of him in lofty terms. We even stopped celebrating his birthday. His name was wiped off our calendars. Better to replace him with the empty suit of a un-named, generalized President-concept. Voila! "President's Day."

Well, I never thought I'd say this, especially given my upbringing which was nothing even close to the apple pie, flag-waving conservative type, but phooey on all that! I come from a family that includes members of the Communist Party in America, current-day self-described Marxists. So, don't pigeon hole me, if you please, as some Republican reactionary. Now, hopefully you'll keep reading. (Um, I'm not one of those Marxists, by the way, just so the rest of you will keep reading, too...)

I say, decide for yourself. Don't just inhale the opinions wafting around our culture and take them for fact without a second thought. Don't take my word for it either. Do something that's novel today: READ. Read Washington's own words and those of his contemporaries. It's almost as good as time traveling there yourself. And thanks to the custom of the day, they were prolific writers. Their pens and paper were the cell phone text message devices of their day. And they were just as addicted to them then as we are to ours now.

George Washington was a man of impeccable character with a gift of servant leadership. Yes, Virginia, there really is a George Washington. There may seem like there are fewer people like this today (or do they just not get the spotlight because we're too preoccupied with the Angelina Jolie type of celebrity?), but it is for real. His greatness is not simply a matter of legend. His contemporaries recognized and honored him for his integrity. Thomas Jefferson, who played hard-ball, character-defaming politics when he ran against Adams that would rival anyone today, said this of Washington: "[His] integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. ...He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good, and a great man." Abigail Adams remarked, "If we look through the whole tenor of his life, history will not produce to us a parallel."

And consider this fact: Washington's birthday was first officially recognized in 1796, three years before his death. Hardly pro forma. One source says that many Americans marked his birthday many years before that. How many leaders have had their birthdays considered worthy of general celebration, by their contemporaries who know them, as opposed to after their death when it might be just for tradition's sake?

About the whole "Washington was a deist" thing. I admit that I fell for that. Until recently. But, as a Christian, I know that when a person compiles a diary of private prayers calling on Jesus Christ to pardon him of his sins, that's not deism. That's as orthodox a faith in Jesus Christ as you'll find. Did you notice that all the questions on the "President's Day" quiz had the same answer? George Washington. For more on the question of whether George Washington gave evidence of a Christian faith, click here.

So, let's celebrate Washington's birthday today. Because, despite the convenience of combining holidays for Lincoln and Washington, thereby amorphosizing his day into the generalized "President's Day," we lose something of great importance. The office of President commands great respect, but really it does so because of the great presidents who served in that office with great character. And if anyone deserves to get his own national holiday, it's the Father of our Country.

Because of what he did.
Because of who he was.
Because of all he believed in.

Because we enjoy the blessings of his sacrifice and wisdom, and that of the God in whom he placed his trust.

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