by Chris Beneke
General David Petraeus’ warning this week about the dangers posed to U.S. troops by Koran burning in the states brings to mind a notable incident in American religious history. Amid the siege of British-occupied Boston in 1775, the recently appointed commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington issued an order that must have resulted in some grumbling in the ranks. For decades, English and American Protestants had burned effigies of the Pope to celebrate the thwarting of (the Catholic) Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. Bostonians marked the anniversary in a particularly lively way that featured fireworks, two flammable "Popes," and one grand fistfight. But in November 1775, with Catholic support for the American war effort desperately needed, an irritated Washington ordered his soldiers to forgo their beloved Pope's Day festivities. The words that he included in his orders may be worth recalling:
As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope – He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.The campaign in Canada didn't end well. But Washington's sentiment--that we have good friends, of different faiths, aiding us against a common enemy--might still be of some value.