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Benjamin Rush and the Christian Thing

In a now well known episode, the Obama administration had Georgetown University cover a Crucifix lest the President of the United States be photographed in its presence. But less well understood is the fact that the university’s compliance was as much at variance with the originating principles of our nation, as with its own Catholic identity.

Readers of The Catholic Thing are far too well informed to need yet another gloss on the American Founders’ understanding of the essentially Christian bases of the new nation. Yet many people schooled in the principled opposition to a national religion draw unwarranted conclusions as to the Founders’ estimation of the centrality of Christian teaching to the future of the United States. It was widely expected by the leaders of thought that all of the major institutions would be utterly porous to that teaching.

In this connection, it is instructive to consider the great Benjamin Rush – that estimable Founder who succeeded in getting John Witherspoon to accept the presidency of Princeton, gave Tom Paine the title “Common Sense,” virtually founded psychiatry in the new world, and teamed with James Pemberton in the creation of the most influential anti-slavery association of the time.

Let us catch up with Rush in 1786 when, as with so many of those who presided over the new order of the ages, he is found reflecting on the sort of education right for the citizens of a republic. His judgment comes down to us in an essay under the heading, “Thoughts upon the mode of education proper in a republic.” The educational institutions he envisages are public, not private. This has no bearing whatever on what it is that later leaders of the new world must know; just what intellectual and moral – and civic – dispositions are to be instilled by way of disciplined study. Already alert to the effects of diverse immigrant populations, Rush states that our public schools, “by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”

Rush moves next to consider the “mode” of education, beginning his brief analysis with his core assumption: “that the 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.” Ah, but what religion? If the choice is between no religion and one that is less suited to the mission of education, he would, “rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is the religion of JESUS CHRIST.”

Mere prejudice? Not at all. He states unequivocally that he will not begin to consider the truth of Christian revelation. Rather, “My only business is to declare that all its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil government. A Christian cannot fail of being a republican.” Rush is aware of antagonistic opinions. In the name of freedom, some would have persons choose their principles for themselves in their mature years. His rebuttal is in the form of a question: “Do we leave our youth to acquire systems of geography, philosophy, or politics till they have arrived at an age in which they are capable of judging for themselves? We do not.”

When Rush considers the texts that will be most useful to the overall plan, he can find nothing more serviceable than the Bible!

“I must be excused in not agreeing with those modern writers who have opposed the use of the Bible as a schoolbook…I maintain that there is no book of its size in the whole world that contains half so much useful knowledge for the government of states or the direction of the affairs of individuals as the Bible.”

What are we to expect of one thus and properly educated?

“He must love popularity, but he must despise it when set in competition with the dictates of his judgment or the real interest of his country. He must love character and have a due sense of injuries, but he must be taught to appeal only to the laws of the state, to defend the one and punish the other. He must love family honor, but he must be taught that neither the rank nor antiquity of his ancestors can command respect without personal merit. He must avoid neutrality in all questions that divide the state, but he must shun the rage and acrimony of party spirit.”

Benjamin Rush was a man of science. He was, as current parlance would have it, a “realist” and well tutored in the foibles and weaknesses of man. He would probably not have been surprised by the collusion of Obama and Georgetown. But he surely would expect of an age embarrassed by the Cross of Jesus that it would be comparably embarrassed by the absolute moral truths taught by the one nailed to it.

Daniel Robinson was a member of the Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University.