If you’ve ever read a good biography of George Washington you can’t walk away from it without a higher, if that is possible, appreciation of the man. Unlike Jefferson, who the more you read comes out pale in comparison to his foundational words, Washington grows. Ron Chernow has written the most recent “massive tome”, but I appreciated Richard Brookhiser’s shorter Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. That book’s purpose was not so much to recount the life but to understand what made it great. Washington, for the first 175 years of American History was the indispensable man. Even though Jefferson wrote the documents we quote, Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”. And per Brookhiser, the reason is not anything inherent in the man – not a first class intellect, not a great natural general losing more than he won, given to pomposity at times with a volcanic temper – but the developed character of Washington. Washington strived to be a better person than he knew himself to be, and his country took heart at his example. He became a man for which other men would endure New York winters dreaming of Virginia summers, as Washington, childless, would dream of his “distant posterity”.
I couldn’t help but think of Washington when I read a much different understanding from New York Times editorial columnist Charles Blow. Quoting,
I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me…I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide….I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.
For Washington, character and freedom were in exercising will over oneself. For Blow, character and freedom are in being subject to the tide. For Washington, one struggled against our natural natures toward something better. For Blow, the greater good is accepting what our natures want to be.
Neither Washington nor Blow differ in their diagnosis of the human condition. Neither is actually that far from St. Paul’s lament, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Rom 7:22-23)” All three had an ideal in their minds to which they were not living up to. The real question is one of will. Is the proper course Washington’s – willing his recalcitrant self in line with his ideal? Or is it Blow’s – willing his ideals in line with his nature?
St. Paul’s answer accords with Washington. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:5-7 ESV)” This process is never complete until the resurrection when we will have the renewed flesh, but it is already starting now. It starts in our renewed minds and moves to a renewed will. Only in Christ can we actually be free, because only in Christ can we actually exercise our will. Collapsing our ideals to our nature is not a free choice, but a surrender of our freedom to the tides.
C.S. Lewis had an arresting image of modernity he called “men without chests”. Modernity produces lots of people with strong heads. Some who even know what is right. It also produces lots of people with strong guts. In the ancient world the guts were the seat of the emotions, so what is meant by that is lots of people with strong emotions. Some of them even right. What it fails to do is produce a Washington. It fails to produce men with chests, men who have hearts or wills that desire and put into action the best of the mind and gut while denying to bring into reality the worst.
This is what James meant when he would say “faith without works is dead (James 2:17)”. A sentiment Paul would agree with when he would say, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (Rom 12:2)”. Likewise Peter, “do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, (1 Peter 1:14-15)”. Do some cardio, workout your chest, your heart. In Christ, will to do the right.