Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mt. Vernon: Reflections on "Patriotism"

Carnations laid by veterans at George Washington's Tomb

Yesterday was another beautiful day along the Potomac. As we headed out toward Mt. Vernon, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, the foliage was stunning and the traffic was light (it being a holiday). One wanted to sigh with contentment.

This was actually my fourth visit to Mt. Vernon. I first went in June 1976 with a church youth group. Then later with my parents and my sister, Martha. Then again in 2005, when I went with my three older children. Each visit had been special in its own way, and Monday's visit was no exception because I was there with Mark (who had never before been to Washington).

Washington's Greenhouse

Each visit was also different because, in each case, I was at a different stage in my life. When I went as a recent high school graduate in the Bicentennial year, I was full of patriotism and an appreciation of our nation's history. I felt connected to it. It was something I had grown up with, read about and even fantasized about. I loved history. 

Almost thirty years later, I had gone with my three older children. I was anxious to share the nation's capital with them. I had homeschooled my eldest, placing an emphasis on American history, and had introduced her to the American Girl books when she was a young girl living in Canada. She fell in love with Felicity, the girl from colonial Williamsburg, and I promised Sarah that I would take her to Williamsburg before she graduated from high school.

As it happened, her senior choir trip was to Washington. I arranged to fly out with Adam and Hannah, then meet Sarah at the end of her trip, whereupon we would then explore DC and Williamsburg together. It was an immensely fun and memorable experience.

Womens' Slave Quarters

As we drove down George Washington Parkway toward Mt. Vernon yesterday morning, I reflected upon how this trip was different from my previous trips in a number of ways. Mainly, I realized that my head was in a totally different place than it had ben on previous visits to Washington. I was out as a gay man, but I had also come out of Mormonism, with its belief system that very deliberately intertwined religion and patriotism. 

Mormons believe that God raised up the Founding Fathers and that the Constitution as written in 1788 was divinely inspired (thus leading them to distrust any evolution from the document as originally written). They believe that the United States has a unique mission to fulfill in the history of the world and especially in the "last days" leading up to the second coming of Christ. They believe that each person who came to the Americas was inspired by God so to do. To say that their theology is exceptionalist and triumphalist would be a vast understatement. They also believe that Mormons will play a unique role in the history of the United States; that the day will come when the "elders of Israel" (the Mormon priesthood) will save the Constitution (whatever that means) in a day of great peril.


I have previously written on this blog about some of the practical implications of this theology, i.e., how it affects rank-and-file members, particularly those in Utah. But what I came to realize yesterday is how much almost 30 years of buying into this way of thinking had warped and twisted my sense of history and patriotism. I had come to deliberately avoid any outward signs of patriotism and had also guarded myself against feeling any sense of "patriotism" lest I "behave" and feel how others expected me to behave and to feel what others expected me to feel. 

My feelings about patriotism, my feelings about and attitude toward our nation's history had been appropriated by Mormonism and had thereby been perverted, conservatized, and communalized. In this regard, yesterday was an exercise in recovery and healing. Not just at Mt. Vernon, but at monuments and memorials that we visited later that day - about which I will write in subsequent posts.

Washington's Original Tomb

As Mark and I concluded our tour of Mt. Vernon after having visited Washington's tomb where there were volunteers handing out carnations to veterans to lay at the tomb's entrance (see lead photo), we talked about what Washington's legacy means to Americans today. Yes, he was a great general, yes he was our first president, yes he guided our nation through its critical first years as a republic - but what would Washington say to Americans today? What does his example of freeing his slaves upon his death mean to us today?

Washington was a revolutionary. He did things that had never been done before. He was not a slave to old ways of thinking. He was not a "conservative." He was a bold leader who had a vision and who remained faithful to that vision, a vision that was clearly even bolder than circumstances of his time would countenance (exemplified by his freeing his slaves upon his death). He was a man who worked to build consensus in order to govern. 

These are all qualities we need in leaders today, and this, I submit, is Washington's living legacy to a diverse, thriving, living America. I think this was reflected in some of what we saw at Mt. Vernon yesterday: a Japanese-American mansion guide; the first-generation Korean-American woman who was ahead of us in the line to enter the mansion; the Latino persons whom we saw, as well as people of other races. These people weren't there because their ancestors had fought in the Revolution or had been passengers on the Mayflower. These people weren't there, I imagine, because they were Christian or because of something Washington did in 1777 or 1789. They were there, I submit, because of what Washington's legacy means to the America of today; and that is why, I realized, I was there as well.


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