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When I was at All Souls College at Oxford some years ago I had a conversation during a Saturday evening dinner that has stayed in my mind ever since. Saturday dinners were poorly attended, and so we did not dine in the Great Hall, as usual, but in the smaller “dessert room.” This was my favorite room in All Souls. It had beautiful oak paneling and through its great glass windows there was a breathtaking view of the Hawksmoor Quadrangle and, looming beyond it, the Radcliffe Camera bathed in golden light. On a Saturday evening, with candlelight glinting off the eighteenth-century college silver, one felt one was in Very Oxford. 

The conversation I took part in that Saturday night was with a distinguished Queen’s Counsel who bore a knightly title and, it was whispered, owned the finest collection of Worcester porcelain in the realm. (That was the sort of accomplishment that won you respect at All Souls.) I won’t mention his name because he was, and remains, a very private man. I doubt he would like his name bandied about by random American academics, even on the website of this distinguished journal. On that evening I watched as Sir J. circulated the room, which he had every reason to believe was filled with hardened atheists, and invited everyone to attend the weekly service on the following morning in All Souls Chapel. I asked one of my dinner companions whether tomorrow was some special occasion in the life of the college. “Oh no,” he said, “Sir J. does this every Saturday evening.” When Sir J. in due course made his way around to us and put in his request, I demurred, saying that I was Roman Catholic. This information clearly startled him, as though I had admitted to being a Martian or a Chinese spy. My companion reassured Sir J. that I was only a Visiting Fellow, meaning that time would soon rectify the college’s lapse in judgment. In any case, Sir J., not losing a beat, replied, “It doesn’t matter that you’re not Anglican. It’s a matter of observance.”

I never went to Sunday services at All Souls Chapel, a gem of fifteenth-century Gothic architecture, and I regret it. I was told that they were regularly attended only by the chaplain and Sir J., which seemed rather sad. I thought at the time that I would be betraying my faith and pretending to be something I wasn’t if I went. I now think that the ethics of belief requires no such conclusion, and I just didn’t appreciate the virtue of observance. 

Observance is something more than showing respect for the beliefs of others. Of course, we all respect the beliefs of others so long as the stores are still open on Sundays. We are willing to go to certain rites like funerals, numbing our ears as the priest reads the ancient words. Going to funerals is the right thing to do, and besides, it’s only an hour or two. We’re willing to give any amount of respect to the beliefs of others so long as it doesn’t cost us much time or money. 

Observance means more than that. Here I think the practice of George Washington should be the model. Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were Deists and rejected dogmatic creeds. They seldom went to church. In the case of George Washington, no one knew what his beliefs were, and that is the point. He regularly attended public worship services at Anglican churches, which was the state church of Virginia before 1784, and was seen to lead prayers on public occasions. During the Revolution, while in the field, he attended services held by army chaplains. While president, he was once reprimanded by his minister from the pulpit (imagine!) for leaving before communion. Washington apologized to the minister for setting a bad example and said it would not happen again. It didn’t. Washington simply skipped the occasional services where communion was offered. (This probably had more to do with his stiff wooden teeth than with any conscientious objection to the ritual.) In fact he set a marvelous example for the country, in religion as in so many other things. The last thing Washington wanted was to disrupt the practice of religion, though he also refused to sanction bigotry against religions other than his own. 

Nowadays, our culture admires “disrupters,” people who “break the mold.” That attitude, I think, is one reason why our society is rapidly disintegrating. If you believe that smashing things is good, people will smash things. Being observant means the opposite of being disruptive. It means keeping your mouth shut if you have doubts about the beliefs and practices that hold our society together. This goes against the grain of moderns, who believe that the ethics of belief demands of them that they dispense the contents of their minds, however threadbare, to the world around them, in season and out of season. But perhaps this is not as necessary as we think. 

We all know married couples who take no interest in religion until they have children. Then they suddenly decide, presumably after some particularly disruptive tantrum, that they need to take their children to church. I had a close friend, now dead, who was a non-practicing Jew, married to a devout Catholic, who raised his son in the faith in the belief that it would be good for the boy’s moral development. My friend was an exemplary father in every way. Yet he also felt that he should not conceal his own atheism from his son, and never went to Sunday Mass with the family. So the boy was given an implicit choice, with predictable results. 

I never saw why it was necessary for my friend to profess his disbelief. My father, who was a great family man, would never tell family members which party he had voted for. He knew that the family disagreed about politics, and knew it would undermine his role as patriarch if he took sides. He did the same at work, where he managed a large department of chemists and chemical engineers. I remember when I first came to Harvard in the 1980s, there were still senior administrators who took this attitude. They might have had cronies with whom they discussed politics, but in their official capacity they made it a point of honor that no one should be able to guess their party affiliation. This too was a kind of observance, in this case observance of the university’s mission, and a recognition that professions of political faith would undermine that.

Of course, it’s true that people in our country before recent times were observant in matters of religion or politics because they feared the censure of their peers or their employers or just wanted to fit in. We lack these incentives now, and it will be hard to rebuild them. But perhaps it’s time to try. We used to admire people who “kept their own counsel” and would only reluctantly share their opinions when asked to do so by others. Maybe if we wanted to rebuild the virtue of observance, we could start by observing silence.

Illustration: Stained glass window of George Washington kneeling in prayer with the inscription from Psalm 16 “Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust.” Congressional Prayer Room, Capitol Building, Washington D.C. 

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

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