President George Washington gave his farewell address to the American people 224 years ago. That was 20 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and just 70 years before the War of Northern Aggression.
I recently reread President Washington’s farewell address, and one of his comments jumped off the page. When I read it I thought, “Well, that’s definitely not the case today,” followed by, “Was it ever true?”
The comment comes about 1,200 words into the address: “The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.”
If only that were true today, how much happier we would be. If there were only slight shades of difference among us, we might only argue over tax rates and welfare instead of illegal immigration and socialism.
In 1800, four years after Washington’s farewell address, there were about 5.3 million Americans living in the United States. The three dominant religions of the day were Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, all WASPs – White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Today, there are nearly 330 million people living in America; a 6,000% increase in population. According to Pew Research Center, less than 50% of American citizens are Protestant. About 20% are Catholic, and nearly 23% are unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular).
According to a recent study published by the Cultural Resource Center at Arizona Christian University, “most Americans reject any absolute boundaries regarding their morality, with a majority—58% of adults surveyed—believing instead that moral truth is up to the individual to decide.”
The paper continues, “Perhaps most stunning, this latest research shows a rejection of God’s truth and absolute moral standards by American Christians, those seen as most likely to hold traditional standards of morality. Evangelicals, defined as believing the Bible to be the true, reliable word of God, are just as likely to reject absolute moral truth (46%) as to accept its existence (48%). And only a minority of born-again Christians 43%—still embrace absolute truth.”
American citizens no longer have the same religion. Religious groups don’t even share the same moral foundations. We also don’t share the same manners, habits, and political principles; we probably never did.
In American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, Collin Woodard discusses the settling of the New World by several distinct peoples in 11 different regions – Yankeedom, New Netherland, Tidewater, The Midlands, Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France, El Norte, The Far West, The Left Coast, and First Nation.
Woodard argues that for the most part, these people groups have remained intact, migrating westward while holding on to their original social political values. Woodard’s American Nations map reveals that many States are split between two or three different nations. If you are from one of the split states, then you know, like I do, that people from other parts of the state are different.
According to Woodard, some of the nations get along better than others, but a few really, really don’t get along. It’s a good read. If you and your grandparents and great-great grandparents grew up in one of the American nations, then you’ll see the truth in the book.
America was divided from the beginning. The Founding Fathers and people of the 13 Colonies put aside some of those divisions to fight a revolution against the British Crown. But those original divisions remained. The divisions were so strong that within 70 years, Americans would take up arms against each other, resulting in the death of 600,000 American men, the greatest wartime loss of life in our history.
And still, more than 150 years after that war, the divisions are still in us, ingrained our cultural history and heritage. It may be that President Washington was correct in 1796 when he said, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles,” but I don’t think he would say that now.