Presidential Piety

A few days ago was George Washington's birthday, and most of us probably celebrated in the all-American way: We went to the malls to shop the Presidents' Day sales. But pause a moment and think of the impression this makes on our kids: Washington is the Father of our country, and we celebrate his memory by rushing out to buy half-price toasters and lawn mowers? If we want to teach our children a deeper reverence for the ideals our nation was founded on, let's use Presidents' Day to help them see Washington as his contemporaries did: as a man of profound Christian piety. Journey back 221 years to the terrible winter of 1777 at Valley Forge. The British had just captured Philadelphia, and the Continental Army was struggling to keep itself alive. Lacking food and clothing, the men were dying of exposure and starvation. Certain political leaders—many of them jealous of Washington—began to whisper that the general's cause was hopeless. But the men who served under Washington felt very differently. As William Bennett writes in his book, Our Sacred Honor, "the brutal conditions of Valley Forge could not suppress a spirit of comity that arose among the officers and their men." These men were inspired to go on because of the moral example Washington provided. His ability to inspire through his character is illustrated through a story told by a Quaker farmer. Walking in the woods near Washington's headquarters, this farmer heard a human voice. The farmer came upon General Washington, alone and on his knees in the snow. He was praying to God while tears ran down his cheeks. After witnessing this humble act of faith, the farmer returned home in great excitement. He told his wife that Washington would not only prevail, but would "work out a great salvation for America." This respect for Washington was a direct result of Washington’s personal virtue, which he cultivated his entire life. As Bennett points out, "Washington wasn’t born good. Only practice and habit made him so." The general was keenly aware of his faults, especially his temper, and from an early age, he worked at controlling this and other shortcomings. In today's "anything goes" culture this intense striving after moral excellence is rare. But it's the reason Washington's men were willing to sacrifice for him—even when their cause appeared hopeless. And it's the reason he was later chosen as our first president. Washington’s renown, you see, is of the biblical kind. When the Old Testament writers judged a leader, it was always in moral, not political, terms. Rulers might conquer a vast empire—but if they neglected their spiritual duties, they were dismissed as men who "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord." Let's make a resolution. Next year on Washington's Birthday, instead of rushing out to malls, let's teach our kids that Washington was not just our first president, but a man of moral excellence. Teach them that they should seek after the kind of renown Washington personified: the kind that arises, not from accomplishment, but from character. Otherwise, we may forget why Washington is remembered as "the Father of our Country"—and that would be a terrible loss.  


Chuck Colson


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