byMost Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach
On Monday, February 21, we will celebrate Presidents’ Day. Schools, banks, and the postal system will be closed on this day and many of us will have a day off to celebrate this significant national holiday. Until 1971, both the birthdays of George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12) were observed as separate national holidays. In 1971, President Nixon proclaimed one single national holiday, Presidents’ Day, to be observed on the third Monday of February, honoring all past presidents of the United States. Presidents’ Day is significant as it honors the men who have served as the chief executive of our great nation. It also honors our system of government that does not allow one person to have complete authority.
I believe that, rightly so, Presidents’ Day is associated with the religious foundation of our nation. The framers of our Constitution, the Founding Fathers, wanted to protect the right of all men and women to practice their religious beliefs in a system of government that separated church and state. This separation was not intended to exclude God from our government, but to include belief in God and moral principles as a vital part of our nation. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government protect one person or one branch from having too much control. Only God has complete authority. Our Founding Fathers and our early presidents would have been appalled at the idea of our nation excluding God and religion, as they are essential to our existence. Indeed, the United States came into existence so that men and women could freely express their belief in God who alone is the chief executive, lawmaker, and judge of our country and our world! As we state in our Pledge of Allegiance, we are “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
While there has been much written as to the religious beliefs of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, there can be little doubt that both men were believers in God. George Washington was a man of great moral character. In fact, his moral character was so strong that the famous fable of his chopping down a cherry tree and his unwillingness to hide the truth arose. In his Farewell Address, George Washington stated so eloquently, “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. — Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of particular structure — reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.” How much our nation needs to hear his words today!
Abraham Lincoln was a man of great faith in God. One cannot read his speeches, laced with references to the Scriptures and to God, without experiencing his obvious conviction. His famous Gettysburg Address proclaimed that, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” For Lincoln, it was God who would bring us to the realization of freedom and to the realization that all men and women are created equal under God. In perhaps what was his greatest speech, the Second Inaugural Address, delivered only forty-one days before his assassination, Lincoln refused to condone any “God bless America” theology that failed to come to terms with evil and hypocrisy within our midst. Overwhelmed by the results and the death toll of the Civil War, Lincoln continued to explain the implications of the judgment of God which would alone prevail. He knew that the separation of church and state in our country did not mean the separation of religion and politics. Again, how much our nation needs to hear his faith and wisdom.
As we celebrate the great leaders of our nation and the government that allows us to practice our religion through an executive, legislative, and judicial system of checks and balances, we thank God for them and for this system. We also realize that it is ultimately God who rules this world, and His reign is supreme for all of us. That is the reason why our very nation exists.
God is truly the chief executive. He not only created the world, but He also guides the course of world events. The world and our lives come from Him and will return to Him. While He has made us free, our freedom is to choose to do His will which alone brings us happiness. He has the ultimate power of veto. He created us to be happy and we will not find happiness until we find Him. He created us in His image and likeness, and we discover our purpose when we follow His call and not make Him in our image and likeness.
God is the supreme lawmaker. When He created the world, He created it according to a natural law which is His. All law is meant to follow God’s natural law. It is not popular to speak of natural law today, especially in the academic world of philosophy, but it is a basic reality. That law is expressed most clearly in the right to life and how terribly is that law violated in our nation today! Our laws must be based on the natural law which comes from God. Our nation was founded to honor this basic principle.
God is the supreme judge. We will ultimately be judged by Him, and all actions will come under His scrutiny. God will judge us according to His supreme law of love summed up so well by Jesus in the Gospel in the parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). God will judge us according to the way we have treated others, especially the most vulnerable.
Let us pray for our president and for our nation. Before the president and the awesome job that he holds, God alone stands as the chief executive, the lawmaker, and the judge. After all that is why our nation, the office of the presidency and our system of government exists. Let us never forget that the president ultimately works for the natural law of God as this nation is under Him.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 18, 2022