February 22 hit me rather hard this year. There are two birthdays that fall on that date which always had a great significance for me, growing up in the 1960s and 70s: those of George Washington and Lord Baden-Powell. Now, at first glance the first president of the United States and the founder of Boy Scouting may seem to have little in common. But alongside Irving Berlin, Norman Rockwell, the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, in many ways these two gentlemen helped to define the country in which I was born and raised.
Washington, “the Father of His Country”, was an American icon beyond compare. His birthday saw pageants in his honour, government and store closures, and, in some places, parades. The erosion of that particular cultus began when, in 1971, Congress relegated its celebration to the nearest Monday, as it did with a number of other civic holidays. While no doubt many Americans were glad of the three-day weekends, it has had the effect of depriving the days affected of much of their significance as anything other than a day off.
Washington’s apotheosis still shines down from the interior of the Capitol’s dome, but he has certainly lost the demigod status he held in my youth – not least because of his slave-owning. But as a major member of what was the national patriotic pantheon, his decline in status is symbolic of what has befallen the civic quasi-religion that has taken the place of an established church (and provided much of the same unifying principle) for so much of our history.
Which brings me to Lord Baden-Powell. Thinking about him and the contribution Boy Scouting made in my own life and that of my family (my brother, five of his sons, and myself are all Eagle Scouts) led me to look up online the 1965 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook that was used when I entered the programme in 1971, after three years in the Cubs. Re-reading its once familiar pages, I remembered, among other things, just how much it encouraged a love of the United States based upon the country as it is. One section, entitled “Get to Know America”, takes the reader on an imaginary hike of the 50 states. It begins: “How well do you know America – your country? How much does it mean to you? As a Scout you have hiked over its fields, camped in its woods. You have listened to the winds that speed across its plains, the brooks that gurgle through its meadows. But do you really know America? Have you realized its vastness, its beauty, its riches?”
After the imaginary hike, the book counsels: “Our hike is done. We have seen America. It is vast. It is beautiful. It is rich. It is ours – ours to know and to love.”
Having, since first reading those words, been able to visit all of the states, I found my much older and cynical self resonating to the truth of those words.
But even more affecting was the book’s farewell to its reader, advising him on taking his place as an adult American. After urging the newly minted man to be an informed voter, to learn thoroughly how his governments – federal, state, county and local – operate, and to study both parties carefully and cast his vote according to his conscience, it gave him some advice that today would be considered radical: “Remember that America is not a gift that is freely given us. Each of us must deserve it. We must work for America, live for it, and, if the call should come, die for it!” That was what was called “Americanism” in my far-off youth.
Of course, that country in which I was born is today one with Nineveh and Tyre – and the decline of the Boy Scouts over the years reflects well the process by which the country which asked, and perhaps merited, that kind of sacrifice has become a chorus of competing entitlements, all striving to whine the loudest. The quiet persecution the Scouts endured over their membership policies by the very governmental organisations to which they had pledged loyalty for so long was a grotesquerie exceeded only by their eventual capitulation.
Now, I must make a confession; I am all too aware that the Americanism of which I have written was an unsteady mixture of elements that depended for survival on the moral consensus which characterised America until it broke apart in the 1960s. Orestes Brownson predicted as early as the 1840s that, unless the country converted to Catholicism, its institutions would one day degenerate into what they have become.
The great tragedy of our nation is that we Catholic Americans preferred respectability and one of our own as president to evangelising this land, which we ought to have loved enough to share with it our greatest treasure. Given the insanity that now dominates our national circus, it is time to rededicate ourselves to that goal. It is a huge, daunting task – but for us, that is truly “working and living for America”, the land to which we owe so much.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna