President Joe Biden’s inaugural appeal for national unity on January 20, 2021 mentioned George Washington, but failed to mention his prescription for unity. In Washington’s 1789 Farewell Address to the nation he had long served (one of his biographers called him “the indispensable man”), he declared,
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you…. [I]t is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.
Washington then identified two “great pillars” upon which national unity would forever depend:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.
One might have hoped that President Biden, out of respect for these indispensable pillars, would have at least mentioned the signal event that had transpired a mere four days before his inauguration: the annual Religious Freedom Day and its corresponding Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day, 2021. That its author was Biden’s predecessor should hardly have mattered to a newly inaugurated president seeking unity and celebrating what he called “the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy”—especially when President Trump’s proclamation so eloquently honored America’s great pillar of religion:
Faith inspires hope. Deeply embedded in the heart and soul of our Nation, this transcendent truth has compelled men and women of uncompromising conscience to give glory to God by worshiping both openly and privately, lifting up themselves and others in prayer. On Religious Freedom Day, we pledge to always protect and cherish this fundamental human right. When the Pilgrims first crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than 400 years ago in pursuit of religious freedom, their dedication to this first freedom shaped the character and purpose of our Nation. Later, with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, their deep desire to practice their religion unfettered from government intrusion was realized. Since then, the United States has set an example for the world in permitting believers to live out their faith in freedom. On Religious Freedom Day, we honor the vision of our Founding Fathers for a Nation made strong and righteous by a people free to exercise their faith and follow their conscience. As Americans united in unparalleled freedom, we recommit to safeguarding and preserving religious freedom across our land and around the world.
Another presidential proclamation made shortly before President Biden’s inauguration was the January 18 Proclamation on National Sanctity of Human Life Day, 2021. It addressed George Washington’s second great pillar, morality—of which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:
A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. That is why today liberal democracy is at risk. Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for ‘all of us together.’ It is about ‘Us,’ not ‘Me’; about ‘We,’ not ‘I.’ If we focus on the ‘I’ and lose the ‘We,’ if we act on self-interest without a commitment to the common good, if we focus on self-esteem and lose our care for others, we will lose much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups.
America’s moral failure in the Roe v. Wade decision prioritized the “I” above the “We,” and thereby, in the words of Mother Teresa, “deformed a great nation” and “pitted mothers against their children and women against men” while “sow[ing] violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.” As if in answer to Mother Teresa’s entreaty to America “to recall you to faithfulness to what you once taught the world,” that “human life is a gift of immeasurable worth, and that it deserves, always and everywhere, to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect,” President Trump proclaimed:
Every person—the born and unborn, the poor, the downcast, the disabled, the infirm, and the elderly—has inherent value. Although each journey is different, no life is without worth or is inconsequential; the rights of all people must be defended. On National Sanctity of Human Life Day, our Nation proudly and strongly reaffirms our commitment to protect the precious gift of life at every stage, from conception to natural death…. As a Nation, we must remain steadfastly dedicated to the profound truth that all life is a gift from God, who endows every person with immeasurable worth and potential…. On National Sanctity of Human Life Day, we celebrate the wonderful gift of life and renew our resolve to build a culture where life is always revered…. I call on the Congress to join me in protecting and defending the dignity of every human life, including those not yet born…. I ask every citizen of this great Nation to listen to the sound of silence caused by a generation lost to us, and then to raise their voices for all affected by abortion, both seen and unseen.
What President Biden did profess in his inaugural address was his commitment to unity, truth, and mutual respect: “[M]y whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.”
He said this “unity” would be based on “the common objects we love that define us as Americans,” paramount among which is “the truth.” “Each of us,” Biden continued, “has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders—leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation—to defend the truth.”
He finally urged, “let us start afresh. All of us. Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another.”
President Biden, we have heard you. We respectfully request that you hear us. We are convinced that the unity spoken of by our first president can never be achieved without adherence to the two “great pillars” he named, those “indispensable supports” of religion and morality. This is the great truth we are all called to defend. As our president, please lead out in cherishing and respecting these foundational pillars. Only thus can any successor of George Washington truly “claim the tribute of patriotism.”