Presidential sermons from the mount
November 17, 2005
They stare in stony silence from the heartland of the country as though keeping vigil on the American character, their combined influence deeply etched upon the national conscience. These presidential giants gaze into the distance, seemingly projecting their permanent roles as guardians of the American faith. Carved in the granite of Mount Rushmore, the 60-foot likenesses of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt command a reverence for that monumental presidential leadership that sustained us at critical moments in our history but which these days proves elusive.
Standing in awe before these icons, a visitor notes melancholically how far we have traveled in a wrong direction. Their magnificent messages help define our national purpose. We must not permit their legacies to be misrepresented by today’s patriotism revisionists.
Our current president campaigned as “a uniter” but divides the nation, catering to his right-wing base rather than forge policies that serve most of us. Supported by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and seeking to cement one-party rule by appointing a plethora of conservative judges, he clearly strives to carve the nation for that constituency’s benefit.
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George Washington thought such partisan zeal was dangerous. In 1799 he warned that “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
In the wake of so many recent examples of government by rampant cronyism, we understand Washington’s concern about a president turning “this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
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Had he lived today, Washington would have cringed at the administration’s purposeful march toward war without procuring a formal Congressional declaration, repeating his admonition that “the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another.”
Thomas Jefferson would be appalled by the excessive influence of the religious right, a sanctimonious lot led by the likes of James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In a country built on a foundation of religious freedom, these extremists continue to define true faith as obedience to their own narrow evangelical dicta. As early as 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill in the Virginia legislature that stated that “all men shall be free to profess and … maintain their opinions on matters of religion.” Enacted seven years later, it was the first time any state had codified complete religious freedom.
The contrast is striking between this long ago illustration of separation of church and state and today’s battles around religious freedom and liberty. It is disingenuous for the purveyors of religious intolerance to spout their holier-than-thou rhetoric in a spirit so inconsistent with the virtues of our founding fathers.
As we agonize over the Iraq war quagmire, we might ponder the moment when a congressman, addressing the House, referred to the president’s war statement and complained that “(he) nowhere intimates when he expects the war to terminate. At the end of about 20 months …(the) president gives us a long message, without showing us, that, as to the end, he himself has even an imaginary conception. … He knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.”
Sounding applicable to today’s out-of-touch-with-reality George Bush, the quote actually is from January 1848. The congressman was Abraham Lincoln, the president was James Polk and the conflict was the Mexican-American war. Today’s right-wing hypocrites who like to cite an association with “the party of Lincoln” should understand how their platitudes about patriotism differ from his political creed. Lincoln belittled the president’s desire for “military glory – that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood.”
Lincoln’s compassionate intonation “with malice toward none, with charity for all” contrasts sharply with Bush’s taunt to “bring ’em on!” Lincoln spent about 25 percent of his time living with troops; Bush’s time with the military is spent giving fiery stump speeches in the media’s glare while declining to attend military funerals.
Our current administration seeks to destroy forests, encourages polluting industries and denies the existence of global warming. But in 1912 Theodore Roosevelt insisted “there can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.” He warned in 1916 that “defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the ‘the game belongs to the people.’ “
Additionally, those who insist that criticism of Bush equates with disloyalty to the country might heed this advice from our 26th president: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public … it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”
These presidential giants’ political parties? One Federalist, one Democrat and two Republicans!
– Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe and a stockbroker with Brookstreet Securities Corporation. He filed this column after a trip to Mount Rushmore.
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