Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Saturday, June 03, 2006

  Pandering to the faithful: A tale of two Georges

I've taken it into my head today to compare how our first and our last President have responded to the concerns of their religiously minded supporters. Any comparison, or rather contrast, between George Washington and George Bush is bound to be striking, if that's the right word. But the following messages from the two men are especially instructive, I think. Bear with me, this will be fun.

In 1790, while visiting Newport, the new President received a letter bearing good wishes from Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Touro Synagogue. George Washington responded to the Congregation in kind. It is a famous exchange of letters. These are widely considered foundation documents for the principle of toleration, as well as for the separation of church and state in the U.S. A recent post by Hume's Ghost brought this letter to mind.

Here is the gist of Washington's letter:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of once class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which 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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.


That is why our first President supposed the American experiment was worthy of imitation: "the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens."

That is what George Washington thought was an enlarged and liberal policy: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of once class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts."

That is the guarantee the new Constitution promised: "there shall be none to make him afraid."

These sentiments, conveyed through private correspondence with a small Rhode Island congregation, are the expressions of a statesman.

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On Saturday morning our last President, George Bush, addressed the concerns of his Christian supporters in a radio address. He communicates his own considered opinion about what the Constitution stands for, by advocating a new Amendment that would prevent states from permitting homosexuals to marry each other. That is the kind of issue Americans busy themselves with these days, so it seems.

Next week, the United States Senate will begin debate on a constitutional amendment that defines marriage in the United States as the union of a man and woman. On Monday, I will meet with a coalition of community leaders, constitutional scholars, family and civic organizations, and religious leaders....

In our free society, people have the right to choose how they live their lives. And in a free society, decisions about such a fundamental social institution as marriage should be made by the people -- not by the courts....

The Defense of Marriage Act declares that no state is required to accept another state's definition of marriage. If that act is overturned by activist courts, then marriages recognized in one city or state might have to be recognized as marriages everywhere else....

The constitutional amendment that the Senate will consider next week would fully protect marriage from being redefined, while leaving state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage. A constitutional amendment is the most democratic solution to this issue...

As this debate goes forward, we must remember that every American deserves to be treated with tolerance, respect, and dignity. All of us have a duty to conduct this discussion with civility and decency toward one another, and all people deserve to have their voices heard. A constitutional amendment will put a decision that is critical to American families and American society in the hands of the American people, which is exactly where it belongs. Democracy, not court orders, should decide the future of marriage in America.


How far we have come in just over two hundred years!

"In our free society, people have the right to choose how they live their lives." That is the view of George Bush about the meaning of the American experiment, worthy for the rest of the world to imitate.

"All people deserve to have their voices heard." That is the enlarged and liberal policy of the U.S., according to our latest President.

"I will meet with a coalition of community leaders, constitutional scholars, family and civic organizations, and religious leaders." That is the guarantee the Constitution promised. Or so it seems.

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