That Veterans Day this year comes just three days after one of the most momentous elections in the nation’s history seems only fitting.
It has been the willingness of men and women in our armed services to volunteer their lives that has achieved and preserved the sacred rite of free elections that few voters realize is our heritage from the earliest days after Europeans’ arrival.
The concept of free elections came here with the Pilgrim/Puritans who, seeking a place where they could worship God in any way they chose, founded the first permanent European settlement in the territory that was to become the United States of America.
As they began to organize at Plymouth (now in Massachusetts), they put in place a democratic way of choosing leaders. Voting was open to all men of the church.
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Still another part of that heritage from the church that went unrecognized by most of today’s Americans was apparent as they voted for members of Congress. When the Founders adopted the U.S. Constitution, it included a bicameral form for Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — similar to the Presbyterian Church model of governance familiar to James Madison, principal architect of that document and prominent member of that church.
Later, from the pulpits of that and other churches (many of them, like the Puritans’, American versions of denominations growing out the European reform movement within the Anglican Church — the Episcopal Church in today’s U.S. version) came the first cry for independence from the English king. So when Col. Ethan Allen took Fort Ticonderoga, he said he did it “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”
From the ensuing Revolutionary War to the present, nearly 43 million Americans have engaged in 14 wars to gain or protect our nation’s freedom and its democratic way of life. Some 18.8 million veterans of recent wars remain in our population.
Beginning with our first president George Washington, leader of the Revolutionary Army and a noted churchman who made sure that every regiment had its own chaplain, many of our political leaders have been both military heroes and men of strong faith.
President Washington often called the nation to prayer, as he did as general, and in his farewell address to Congress he warned, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle” which he declared to be the base of a government of the people.
It was another war hero/president — Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of all Allied troops in Europe during WWII involving 16 million American troops — who led the 1954 Congress to change the name of the holiday to “Veterans Day” to honor veterans of all the nation’s wars. Before that it was “Armistice Day,” recalling an agreed-upon pause in fighting that led to the end of WW I — the so-called “War to End All Wars.”
A man of faith from his childhood days growing up in a family who followed the teachings of the Mennonite Church, President Eisenhower, then a Presbyterian, also influenced Congress to adopt the words, “In God We Trust,” as our national motto and make them officially part of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Now, what will the new president do with such a heritage?
Adon Taft taught social studies at Miami Dade College and for 48 years was a reporter, editor and columnist for the Miami Herald.