The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee: “Faith, Freedom and Virtue”
It takes less than a minute, except during rush hour, to cross from Washington into Virginia. The Potomac River is not much of a barrier. But over the centuries, the distance between the national capital and the Commonwealth of Virginia has varied dramatically. In the earliest days, there was hardly any distance at all since Virginia was a primary leader of the intellectual and political ferment that led to the birth of the nation. But contemporary with the establishment of the capital on the Potomac, the tension between Virginia and the nation began to increase, until it led to open rebellion in the Civil War. The Potomac became a hostile boundary. Virginia has shaped our nation’s history, rebelled against national authority, in this century resisted the movement for racial justice and yet has contributed so very much to the making of America. Today, Virginia is a beneficiary of many federal dollars, thanks in no small measure to the energy and leadership of our two lay readers today, the distinguished United States senators from Virigina.
Virginia’s ambivalent relationship with the nation, sometimes formative and leading, sometimes hostile and resistant, has been matched on occasion by Washington’s dismissal of its historic neighbor across the river.
I experienced that shortsighted Washington view not many years ago. My first assignment as a new priest was on the staff of St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, across from the White House. Twenty years later, as the Bishop of Virginia, I was asked back to St. John’s to speak to a dinner of former lay leaders. A distinguished Washington lawyer whom I had known when I was a young priest came up to me and with generosity and unintended Washington arrogance said, “Peter, we are very proud of you. You are a bishop somewhere now, aren’t you?”
When the Potomac is a great divide, from Virginia—and the rest of the nation—everyone suffers.
In just a few years, Virginia will mark 400 years since the first English settlers brought to these shores their version of the Christian faith. The religious life of Virginia across these centuries has been dominated by a tension between faith and freedom, a tension defined in the decades of the eighteenth century when a few well-educated Virginians were influenced by the European enlightenment and thousands of Virginians were swayed by evangelical revivals across the Commonwealth. In the 1730s, the majority Christian group in Virginia was Episcopalian. By the 1790s, the majority was Baptist. Ever since, Virginia Christian life has been marked by a tension between the spiritual descendants of Thomas Jefferson and the spiritual descendants of the great evangelical revivals of the same era. Thomas Jefferson was derided by his opponents as godless and dangerous. Evangelical preachers were dismissed by the followers of Jefferson as ignorant and prejudiced.
Today, in this well-ordered Cathedral that speaks eloquently of rationality and mystery both joined in the service of God, it is difficult for us to grasp the significance of the break between the Jeffersonian and the evangelical traditions. And yet, the failure of Virginia to bridge the gap between the two traditions is one of the great and tragic might-have-beens of history. In England in about those same years, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, personal, evangelical piety, shared by John and Charles Wesley, contributed mightily to the movement for the abolition of slavery. In Virginia at the time, voices against slavery were rare. Thomas Jefferson wrote persuasively about inalienable human rights, but he held on to his slaves. What might have happened in Virginia if the humanist sense of enlightenment had been nourished by a Christian conversion experience that led to a passion against slavery? It din’t happen, or at least it happened among so few that it made little difference in Virginia. What might have been.
Even to this day, two communities exist side-by-side in Virginia—one of independent, Bible-centered congregations with inherited suspicion of cities, universities and contemporary culture. And the Jeffersonian tradition in Virginia, while admirably zealous for the separation of church and state, often treats religion as so much a private matter that it should have little to say in the public realm. It is an overstatement, but not much of one, to say that one community, the Jeffersonian tradition, holds as an unexamined doctrine that religion is entirely a private matter, while the other tradition of evangelical piety, affirms that America is a Christian nation whose values should be those of the Bible, interpreted in the most conservative light.
Both traditions have held on to one dimension of personal values shaped by Judeo-Christian standards. Virginia has a powerful and priceless tradition of expecting high standards of personal honor among its leaders. When Robert E. Lee was President of Washington College in Lexington, the institution that now bears his name along with Washington’s, General Lee was asked by a student for a book of rules. He responded, famously, “We have but one rule: our students are gentlemen and a gentleman does not lie, cheat or steal.” That rule, adapted to the happy reality of coeducation and spread from a nineteenth-century elite to the whole of the Commonwealth, reflects the heritage of personal honor that is still a cherished value of all Virginians.
Contemporary Virginia needs to offer the rest of the nation an example of joining its twin legacies of faith and freedom, which includes its respect for personal honor and public virtue.
Faith is nurtured in a climate of freedom. We have learned that faith imposed by state authority is corrupting and oppressive. The French philosopher Pascal once wrote that “people never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions.” Religious zealots from the great religions of the world who deny the freedom of others betray the highest values of their own creeds. Faith and freedom may be in tension but they need not be in conflict.
We are in danger in America and even across the world, of dismissing serious commitment to religious faith as irrelevant to public virtue or even dangerous to civic peace. The crisis surrounding the President of the United States is in part the inevitable result of the rupture between personal faith and public life, between faith and freedom, the break between personal honor and political values.
As this most violent century draws to an end, as race and ethnicity and religion continue to divide people and to lead to their slaughter, the world needs people of faith who honor freedom; people committed to freedom who respect the integrity of faith, people who can build societies that value personal honor and public virtue.
The great religions of the world have much to say about our life together. They cannot be relegated simply to the realm of private preference. In the lesson from the Hebrew scriptures today (Amos 8:4–7), the prophet Amos condemns those who take shortcuts with the law that forbids commerce on the Sabbath. The behavior condemned by the prophet may be “legally accurate,” but those who engage in behavior that oppresses the poor are corrupt. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:1–8), insists that Christians hold their rulers in their prayers—assuming that the public good requires leaders of personal honor but since they are flawed human beings like the rest of us, they need the support of our prayers. And in the parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus warns that the distinction between private and public virtue is artificial. The one who is dishonest in very little things will also be dishonest in much. The ancient Bible stories are right on target for the issues of today.
This Cathedral stands on the highest hill in the District of Columbia. Its towers dominate the Washington skyline, not with the power to oppress, but with the power to inspire and to call a people to personal integrity and public virtue. That does not mean our leaders must be saints. Many of us know our senators, other leaders and our bishops well enough to know that sainthood has eluded all of us. We are all flawed, fallible persons, but that does not suggest that our quest for private and public virtue is in vain. We need to reaffirm the integrity of faith, faith in a God who empowers each one of us to become the person God intends us to be; the God who lifts us up when we fall and who redeems our failures with new hope. We need to recover a personal faith that sustains both private honor and public virtue. We need to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular, not by a diminution of freedom, but with an expansion of faith that respects freedom and the freedom that protects the nurture of faith and the privacy of individuals.
This nation is engaged in a great public conversation about the crisis in the presidency. President Clinton’s moral authority is severely compromised. Whether this crisis ends with resignation, impeachment, or censure and a crippled presidency for the remaining two years of the term, it is important for the well-being of the nation to consider what we can learn about ourselves in this crisis. That in no way absolves the president from his responsibility. But have we separated personal, private morality from public life so extensively that this was a crisis waiting to happen? Do we have a system of raising up leaders in public life that encourages and rewards honor, integrity and personal commitment to our shared values? Or, do we separate faith and freedom, personal honor and public virtue so extensively that our moral life together is imperiled? Our moral life is now endangered by excessive public intrusion into private life and dishonorable private behavior that erodes public trust. With our traditions, Virginians can make a difference in the national conversation.
Virginia is a Commonwealth where faith and freedom have competed but have flourished; we are a commonwealth that demands of our leaders personal honor and service to public virtue. Let those great traditions come together again in a new and mutually respectful union so that our people may be strengthened.
In his farewell address in 1796, our first president, George Washington, said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…a volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity…let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Virginia is the birthplace of English speaking Christian faith in America. Virginia is the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson’s statute for religious freedom. We are a community that offers to a nation the union of personal honor serving public virtue, of personal faith in a climate of freedom that restricts intrusive government.
In New Testament Greek, the word crisis means a time of judgment, a time of separation, a time of clarification. A crisis in the view of the Bible is often created by the word of God, proclaimed by the prophets, exposing the gap between where people are and where they ought to be. We are living at such a time and that time, the Bible teaches us, can be one of hope and of new beginning. May the traditions of Virginia, of faith and freedom, of private piety and public virtue, of personal honor and public service, come together again in this great nation so that future generations will look back on our day as a time of moral renewal and refreshing new hope, a time when God called this nation to a rebirth of our spiritual strength.