Feb 16, 2014 2
When searching for a music video for this blog essay, I surfed through YouTube as per usual. More and more there are commercials, at least for first-time clickers of a link, lasting anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds. Some must be endured, some can be clicked off. A fact of internet life. This week, intending to write about Presidents’ Day and the Christian beliefs of our presidents, as I am wont every year, I was struck by the common theme of the advertising pop ups.
Presidents’ Day – that is, Presidents’ Day mattress sales. The $5-bill face of Abraham Lincoln with moving lips, reminding us of Two-For-One sales. An animated George Washington saying, “I cannot tell a lie. I am CHOPPING prices this Monday!”
It is odious enough that the American culture effectively stopped honoring great men like Lincoln (whose birthday was February 12) and Washington (February 22). It is offensive enough that nonentities and shady characters who held the presidential office for a season are elevated to equal status with Lincoln and Washington by the invention of a vacuum-cleaner holiday like Presidents’ Day. It is depressing that America, at a point when we should be mature as a civic society, has descended to such base materialism.
Patriotic displays largely have withered and died in the public square. Prayers have disappeared from schools and civic events. Politicians seem more grasping than ever. There are exceptions, but these things mostly are true. People wear flags as apparel decorations, and stick them to bumpers, but how many people, even of such patriotic extroversion, can name the presidents of the United States, in order, or the Bill of Rights so frequently invoked?
I have been reading a book, “The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor,” by Rear Adm. Robert A Theobald. It details the impossible diplomatic position the United States put Japan in during the months leading to Pearl Harbor, with the intention to invite an attack by the Japanese; the purposeful failure to alert US commanders of the imminent attack; the scapegoating of Naval and Army personnel after 3300 lives were lost; the reason for the machinations – an obsession to enter a war against Germany, Japan’s ally, and to save Great Britain. This was at a time when American public opinion was overwhelmingly against participation in any foreign war. Franklin Roosevelt unilaterally skirted Congress and committed arms, bases, ships, and diplomacy to one side of a foreign conflict. Germany didn’t take the bait; Japan did.
It matters little whether FDR was betting on the right side of history. He could have proceeded honestly and openly to persuade the American people. That he did not might cast him as a war criminal. Other presidents have lied, betrayed the trust of their people, and occasionally spent lives and fortunes unwisely.
I state these facts to say that I don’t think US presidents all deserve halos. Even the greatest have clay feet. Not all were well-intentioned.
But many had sterling intentions. In this polyglot nation of immigrants we have produced a class of presidents whose ranks are generally above any average group we could gather. The Framers were a remarkable assembly whose faith, maturity, and foresight was extraordinary. We have been blessed. As Theodore Roosevelt said, in Abraham Lincoln we had a man whose greatness was due to his goodness. Theodore Roosevelt himself was the most accomplished, intelligent, well-prepared, visionary, and… religiously observant of our presidents.
On this last aspect we discover the major difference – perhaps the dividing-line – between exceptional and ordinary presidents; between the old America and the new. We are told that Washington’s circle was comprised of Deists; yet his famous prayer, the injunctions to pray by Franklin, the language of the Declaration and Constitution, prove to us that these men knew, and feared, God.
We are told that Lincoln seldom attended church. Yet we can read in the notes of his associates, in his letters, in his speeches, an evolving awareness of God – and a reliance, a summons, a sharing of biblical principles – in the last two years of his life. His last speeches, his Second Inaugural, read like sermons.
And Theodore Roosevelt became an editor of a weekly Christian magazine when he left the White House. He titled two of his books after Bible verses. He made impromptu speeches for five nights at a prominent seminary. He wrote an article for Ladies Home Journal about why men should go to church. This irrepressible personality quietly, but largely, lived his faith.
Are these days past? Do giants still walk amongst us, in American civic life?
Most of the faces on our currency consists of presidents of the past. Since Presidents’ Day has been distorted and perverted to be a glorification of sales and commerce, it might be appropriate that the currency that is King for a Day on the third Monday of February is nicknamed “Dead Presidents.”
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I have chosen a song that goes ‘way back in the American heritage for the music video with this essay. No message, but, as we have recalled Washington, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt of an earlier, and greater, time in America, here is a moment of nostalgia for the time when American held promise. “Oh, Shenandoah” is an old folk tune about the pioneer’s relentless move westward, remembering the Shenandoah Valley, and determining to “cross the wide Missouri” River. This is a remarkable “virtual” duet with the legendary Tennessee Ernie Ford and Sissel Kyrkjebo, the stunning Norwegian soprano. With members of the Chieftans. Click the YouTube button if prompted.
Click: Oh, Shenandoah