A Memorial Day Meditation
“Theism and Patriotism:
Two Necessities to a Successful Republic”
Although approximately twenty five U. S. locations have vied for being the site of the origin of Memorial Day, one thing is certain: the original intent of what has become Memorial Day was to decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War. A ceremony honoring local veterans who had fought in the Civil War was held on May 5, 1866, at Waterloo, New York, and 100 years later, this city was declared by Congress and then President Lyndon Johnson as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. On May 5, 1868, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, established Decoration Day as the time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Logan, regarded by many as the most important early figure to recognize Memorial Day (Decoration Day) as an official national holiday, declared that the day should be observed on May 30. Following World War I, the day was expanded to include honoring all those who had died in all American wars. It was not until 1971, that Congress officially declared Memorial Day a national holiday and placed it on the last Monday in May.
Those we remember in a special way with the observance of a memorial day are patriots of the highest order. Their patriotism reflects a sacrifice that has paid the ultimate price. Memorial Day is more than a mere symbol of something great in the history of the American Republic. It is an act of living citizens aimed at doing what General Logan was urging when he ordered his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of spring time” because we “should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. . . Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
A free republic—to remain free—must have a citizenry who is patriotic to the point of being willing to sacrifice, if necessary, by paying the ultimate price of one’s life. Freedom is not free. America remains free because this quality of patriotism has characterized so many of its citizens. More than 1.1 million have been killed in all U.S. wars and many more were willing, but their lives were spared.
Not only is it the case that patriotism is necessary to a republic, but theism (belief in God) is also necessary in order for a free republic to remain free. Whittaker Chambers has been called the most important 20th century defector from Communism. He also has been called the most influential writer to impact the thinking of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Chambers’ memoir, Witness, held such high estimation in Reagan’s mind that he kept copies of it on his bookshelves at all of his homes. Concerning freedom, Chambers wrote the following passage that was one among many from him that exercised remarkable influence on President Reagan.
. . . God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. . . . Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. . . . Religion and freedom are indivisible. . . .
There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died. (16-17, emp. added)
Note carefully the above statement—“Religion and freedom are indivisible.” In a 2014 speech delivered on “Civic Education,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) said:
. . . [T]he Founders were as interested in teaching virtue as in teaching civics. . . . As Webster put it, “[t]he virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.” And this could not likely be done, the Framers believed, without religion. . . .
The Founders stressed that civic education required the teaching of religious values. Benjamin Rush wrote that “[t]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue, there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” . . .
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear that I am not saying that every good American must believe in God. . . . What I am saying, however, is that it is contrary to our founding principles to insist that government be hostile to religion, or even to insist (as my court, alas, has done in word though not in deed) that government cannot favor religion over nonreligion. It is not a matter of believing that God exists (though personally I believe that); it is a matter of believing, as our Founders did, that belief in God is very conducive to a successful republic. Believe, if you wish, that religion is, as Marx said, the opiate of the masses—so long as you acknowledge it to be our tradition that it is better for the republic that the masses be thus opiated. . . .
. . . [T]he Founders believed morality was essential to the well-being of the republic, and that religion was the best way to foster morality. Religious values were therefore central to the Founders’ aspirations for civic education. This is not an anachronistic view, either; it is well reflected in the current sense of society. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the “under God” portion of the Pledge of Allegiance as unconstitutional under the Religion Clauses, the Senate unanimously, and the House with only five dissenters, strongly criticized the decision. (My court subsequently vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision on standing grounds.)
. . . [T]he Supreme Court has adopted the demonstrably unhistorical view that the Constitution forbids not merely the favoring of one religion over another but even the favoring of religion in general over irreligion. In fact, it forbids the former but not the latter—and to know what that means in practice you need only consult George Washington’s First Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued at the direction of the same First Congress that proposed the First Amendment. It is deeply religious but assiduously non-denominational. . . .
Nonetheless, despite Washington’s example, the Court repeatedly says that government cannot favor religion over nonreligion. . . .
. . . In short, the Court has rejected as an establishment of religion a public preference for religion over irreligion, when a preference for religion over irreligion is central to our history and traditions. (69-71, 73-74, emp. added)
Without religion (i.e. belief in God), there can be no lasting virtue. Without virtue, there can be no liberty. Without liberty (freedom), there can be no successful republic. Perhaps the greatest of all the Founders, George Washington, best summarized both the necessity of theism and patriotism for a successful republic when he said the following in what many believe to be his greatest speech—Farewell Address (September 19, 1796):
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. . . . Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
. . . Who that is a sincere friend to it [free government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric? (qtd. in Avlon 299)
On this Memorial Day may we as Americans meditate deeply on Theism and Patriotism: Two Necessities to a Successful Republic. May God continue to bless America.
Charles C. Pugh III
Avlon, John. Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Chambers, Whittaker. Witness: 50th Anniv. Ed. Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 2001.
Scalia, Antonin. Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived. New York: Crown Forum, 2017.