By Sam Burnham
We live in perilous times. The election continues to be contentious. The world seems to be falling apart as the Middle East spirals further and further into war. Refugees are forced from their homes. Terror attacks are ravaging the cities of Europe. It's enough to drive you crazy if you dwell on it enough.
But our recent Virginia trip has had me thinking about a particular line from our history. As the Americans, from different philosophies, stood together in defense of the rights guaranteed to them, they decided to craft a document and Thomas Jefferson closed it like this: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Looking at that line a few things stand out to me.
First of all, "deists" don't rely on "the protection of divine Providence." It sort of goes contrary to their whole idea of faith. These were largely men of faith who were placing their hope in that faith to get them through trying times. They were believing that they were doing the right thing and that the hand of The Almighty was going to favor their action. They realized that there was no human or scientifically explainable way for them to accomplish what they were setting out to do.
Second of all, they pledged to each other. They put hope in each other. They knew that a fractured and divided movement would never succeed. There was a need to depend on each other. We like to pretend that all the Founding Fathers always got along, that they were all good friends and were of one mindset. But history teaches us something very different. These men got past their differences to advance the cause and place their great experiment in motion. They put their trust in their rivals.
Third they pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Several of these men never lived to see Yorktown. Many who lived to see victory had lost every possession they had. The only thing these men would have at the end of the war would be that sacred honor.
Honor is not something we talk much about any more. it is not uncommon to have candidates, or even elected officials, who lie, cheat, and steal. They do whatever advances their personal agenda and gives them power. And then we have those who drag the names of our national heroes into the mud, judge them by the morals of our day and advance a cause that says they weren't great men. This makes many feel better about electing scumbags today. Perhaps it even makes them feel better about themselves. It's far easier to drag down the exalted than it is to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
We can be better than that. We're not at the moment, but we can be. Our current electoral mess is a reflection of the people we are as a nation. If we pledged our sacred honor, we wouldn't have enough on the line to buy a pack of gum at a mini-mart.
What do we have to do?
I'd say that if we are going to claim to be people of faith, we have to grab it and run with it. That is going to have to be a personal thing. We can't just claim it when it disagrees with those we disagree with. It has to be a commitment that governs how we live, the decisions we make for ourselves and our families, and how we treat people. We have to judge a tree by it's fruit while not demanding that pear trees produce oranges. When pear trees gorw pears we have to understand that's what pear trees do.
We have to change the way we converse in this country. Politics have always been contentious but we have a unique problem. 1) We have two major candidates that don't have enough honor between them to flap a flag in a hurricane. Their dishonor has required so much of the conversation we've had no time to discuss the important issues that our nation is facing. It's been an entire season of mud slinging and we're the ones getting soiled. And 2) We have to change the way we discuss the issues with each other. Personal attacks, name calling, mud slinging, muckraking, and threats don't fix our problems. We need intellectual debate of the issues.
But most of all, we have to reclaim the idea of sacred honor. We have to be honest. We have to be people of our word. We have to recover the idea that these things matter. We have to expect honor of ourselves first and then we have to expect it from our leaders. We have to be the kind of people that we expect to have leading us because that's how self-government works.
By putting their sacred honor on the line, our Founding Fathers were saying that they could be wrong, that the whole thing could blow up in their face leaving them looking like wayward, rebellious fools. It could make their name and their word worthless. They understood the risk. That risk is now ours. It's the risk a free people on a mission of self-government. We have to rise to the occasion.
America can only be as good as the people tasked with governing it. Under our system, that's all of us. Our fortunes can be lost, our lives can be taken, but we must work to make our sacred honor secure. we have to expect better of ourselves, place our trust in others to do the same and put our country in a position to deserve better than we are getting this year. Then, and only then, can we expect our situation to improve.
I'm pledging to you to work on me. I'm trusting you to work on you.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire