ALEXANDRIA, October 28, 2017 – Christ Church, where both George Washington and Robert E. Lee were parishioners, is a short walk from my home in Alexandria, Virginia. Over the years, I have attended many events at this historic church. Several months ago, I took visitors from France to visit the church, and we went on a guided tour.
Our guide showed us the pews of Washington and Lee and took pride in the church’s role in history. During World War ll, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt attended services at Christ Church.
Removing George Washington and Robert E. Lee from Christ Church history
Now, leaders of the church have decided to remove a pair of plaques from its sanctuary that memorialize Washington and Lee. The church argues that some people might not feel “welcome” if the Washington plaque remained. A recent letter to members of the congregation says the plaques, on either side of the altar since 1870, will be removed.
The reason, according to the letter, is that they
“create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors.”
If only the plaque to Lee is removed, church leaders say, it would “unbalance” the aesthetic look of the church.
George Washington’s Legacy is worth honoring at Christ Church
George Washington’s legacy, although those in charge at Christ Church may not understand it, is worthy of celebration, as is that of our other founding fathers. His home at Mt. Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s at Monticello, James Madison’s at Montpelier all would have been confiscated by the victorious British, had the Revolutionary War been lost.
At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, only one-third of the population of the thirteen colonies supported breaking away from the British Empire. Those who supported independence put their lives on the line.
The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that there have been only two instances in the history of Western civilization when the political leaders of an emerging nation behaved as well as anyone could reasonably expect. The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus and the second was America’s revolutionary generation.
The founding fathers did not consult the colonial equivalent of pollsters to find out what people would like to hear. Instead, they began developing ideas about how a government should be run; and how freedom should be established in an environment of order and law.
These men did not hire ghost-writers for The Federalist Papers.
They often took highly unpopular positions and did their best to convince their colleagues and the public at large of their merits. They risked their lives and everything they owned to declare independence and knew very well that the possibility of losing everything was very real.
George Washington “President for Life”
George Washington dismissed the idea of being “president for life”. After two terms, he returned to Mt. Vernon. While religions were at war with one another in Europe, Washington was a strong supporter of the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom.
In his letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, Washington wrote:
“Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.”
George Washington’s views on slavery evolved and in his will he freed all of his slaves.
In his book “His Excellency, George Washington,” historian Joseph J.Ellis writes:
“In the eulogy that has echoed through the ages, Henry Lee proclaimed that Washington was ‘First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’ This formulation offered an elegantly concise summation of the three historical achievements on which his reputation rested: leading the Continental army to victory against the odds and thereby winning American independence; securing the Revolution by overseeing the establishment of a new nation-state during its most fragile and formative phase of development; and embodying that elusive and still latent thing called ‘the American people,’ thereby providing the illusion of coherence to what was in fact a messy collage of regional and state allegiances. There was a consensus at the time, since confirmed for all time, that no one else could have performed these elemental tasks as well, and perhaps that no one could have performed them at all.”
In Ellis’s view,
“Whatever minor missteps he had made along the way, his judgment on all the major political and military questions had invariably proved prescient, as if he had known where history was headed; or, perhaps, as if the future had felt compelled to align itself with his choices. He was that rarest of men: a supremely realistic visionary, a prudent prophet whose final position on slavery served as the capstone to a career devoted to getting the big things right. His genius was his judgment.”
Christ Church and the sin of contemporaneity,
If we judge the past by the standards of today, must we stop reading the works of those who supported slavery, Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aristophanes, Dante and Chaucer? Unfortunately, until the 19th century, slavery was commonplace in the world.
Will we soon hear calls to demolish the Acropolis and the Coliseum? Where will it end?
As the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood declared, such an attitude constitutes the “sin of contemporaneity,” holding our ancestors wanting for failing to embrace the standards of our contemporary world.
Christ Church may have to consider whether it can continue to read the Bible, which lacks a modern sensibility. And it may have a problem with Jesus himself as well as St. Paul and the other disciples. They were not against slavery, instead encouraging that slaves be treated humanely.
Is that enough for the leaders of Christ Church? Perhaps they have yet to confront that dilemma.
Embarassed by our first President
If George Washington is now an embarrassment to Christ Church and has caused its leaders to reject its own history, that is sad indeed. No one else, however, need follow suit.
Hopefully, we can live with a more complex reality in which George Washington, an imperfect human being, can remain worthy of our esteem.