Back to basics with a more functional Washington

Published 8:33 am Monday, July 6, 2015

Somewhere in the rainbow celebrations and dissensions of late, we may have missed something.

Pope Francis gave us a clue as to what that missing something is when, just a few days before the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, he issued an encyclical on creation. He looked to Scripture and saints like his namesake, Francis, to provide us with a lens with which we might see ourselves and the world differently — as gifts. When we see everything in the world as a gift, we have a new relationship with the world.

In a piece in the Catholic newspaper OSV Newsweekly, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed out the challenge to freedom that now looms: “(T)he freedom to run our ministries and participate in the public square while holding to the teachings of Jesus will likely be challenged,” with “laws and regulations” that”could threaten the life and work of the Church as well as other religious institutions and individuals of faith.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

He urged patience and courage in being “absolutely committed to what Christ has taught us,” adding, at the same time: “let us also speak and act with love, attracting people to the beauty of God’s design while keeping our hearts close to Christ in prayer.”

I visited Archbishop Kurtz in his home in Louisville, Kentucky, last summer — on a picture-perfect block where the concrete never obscures the green. During the conversation, he pointed to George Washington and a little book on civility that compiles the rules the first president of the United States tried to live by.

My friend and National Review colleague Richard Brookhiser edited an edition of these civility guides and writes: “There is a special reason why Washington’s ‘Rules of Civility’ are not taken seriously today — and that is the withering of the ambition to be great, and the belief that greatness is possible.”

So how can we be great? Even in these times of globalized indifference, hyper-connectedness and aggressive detachment, achievement and destruction, clarity and confusion, overload and crisis? Here are some of Washington’s rules:

“Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

“Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.”

“Read no letters, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask to leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked.”

This one might be the end of reality television if taken too seriously: “Reproach none for the infirmities of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind thereof.”

“Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”

Modesty is such a lonely word, as Billy Joel might sing.

Here’s an important one: “When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence.”

Finally: “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

We are very far away from these precepts at this present moment, but perhaps we can restore some civility again. By doing so, we might give ourselves a chance to take a look around and see what we have been given. It might just change the way we live and conduct our lives and even politics.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at