On this Presidents’ Day, one of many American traditions we owe to George Washington, let’s reflect on another tradition he established – the farewell address.
Washington’s Farewell Address first appeared – it was written, not spoken – in a Philadelphia newspaper, the American Daily Advertiser, in 1796. In those days, Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital. Today, “Washington” has morphed from a towering person of character into a tumultuous seat of political power, where Donald Trump has replaced Barack Obama in the White House.
Although Presidents’ Day, first observed in honor of Washington, is on the third Monday in February, his birthday is Feb. 22. About that time each year, a member of the U.S. Senate reads Washington’s Farewell Address. More than 6,000 words long, it warns against excessive partisanship, foreign entanglements and regional differences. In a text that has been essentially forgotten by Americans, despite a recent book and news stories about it, one omission from the national memory is particularly glaring.
Washington believed that Judeo-Christian values formed the foundation for America’s future success. Washington had previously written that America could never hope to be a “happy nation” unless it humbly imitated the “Divine Author” of Christianity. In his Farewell Address, he restated this theme, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
If Washington’s spiritual legacy from his last words to the nation is heeded, according to our Founding Father, we may be well on the way to “political prosperity” as a “happy nation.”
These spiritual values were not evident in Obama’s Farewell Address. But they were accented in the inauguration of America’s 45th president.
The Trump era commenced with a record number of Inaugural prayers —three more than the official number of Inaugural Balls. In his Inaugural Address, the newly sworn in president spoke of “righteousness” and declared America would be “protected by God,” echoing themes of virtue and providential care extolled by Washington in his First Inaugural Address. Trump quoted the Bible, citing Psalm 133:1, a text celebrating unity often heard at the beginning of religious assemblies.
For many from Judeo-Christian faith traditions, this likely came as a welcome change. The Obama administration often seemed to lecture Christians about historical failures, diminish America’s commitment to Israel and even describe some voters as those who “cling to their guns and to their Bibles.”
Obama’s Farewell Address ended an era. An epoch began with Trump’s unexpected electoral victory. But will the values and virtues celebrated at the Inauguration soon be forgotten by one whose “religion and morality” were severely scrutinized throughout the presidential race? If Washington’s spiritual legacy from his last words to the nation is heeded, according to our Founding Father, we may be well on the way to “political prosperity” as a “happy nation.”
So here’s my prayer for the new president: When he finally bids farewell to the nation, may he have been as successful in emulating the spiritual values of Washington as he has been in the art of the deal.
Dr. Peter A. Lillback is the president of The Providence Forum, an organization devoted to recognizing the role of faith and providence in the story of America.