Today is George Washington’s 280th birthday, which (unlike “Presidents’ Day”) deserves full celebration. One evening this week I was one of several invited to give toasts to George Washington before students and other supporters of Hillsdale College at its wonderful Capitol Hill campus. Our republic still has hope when young and hold still gather to honor our chief Founding Father.
It’s a tribute, in a way, to Washington that his legacy is so interwoven into the nation’s fabric that so many across the spectrum still want to claim him. Recently, an official with the left-wing and typically anti-religious Americans United for the Separation of Church and State described how Washington’s ostensible indifference to religion would today make him “unelectable.”
“To hear the Religious Right tell it, men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were 18th-century versions of Jerry Falwell in powdered wigs and stockings,” explained Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst with Americans United. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Americans United, initially founded 60 years ago by mostly by liberal Protestants especially to combat Roman Catholic influence, now generically targets nearly all conservative religionists. Headed by a liberal United Church of Christ minister, Barry Lynn, Americans United largely wants to banish traditional religion to the margins of public life. It detects theocratic ambitions among nearly all politically active traditional evangelicals and Catholics. But it largely seeks to enthrone its own liberal Protestant theocracy, where the welfare and regulatory state is the chief object of worship. According to Boston, General Washington would approve.
“The father of our country was nominally an Anglican but seemed more at home with Deism,” Boston asserted, explaining that Deism’s deity wasn’t “active in human affairs,” who “set things in motion and then stepped back.”
But by Boston’s definition, Washington almost certainly was not a Deist, since he frequently credited Providence with miraculous interventions, especially during the Revolution, when Washington himself often narrowly escaped death. Washington thanked Providence for having “directed my steps and shielded me in the various changes and chances through which I have passed from my youth to the present moment.”
According to Boston, Washington thought religion facilitated “good moral behavior,” which is true, while also claiming Washington didn’t “necessarily accept all Christian dogma,” for which there is no firm evidence. Boston accurately noted that Washington often abstained from communion, for which there are many possible explanations. And he described Washington’s tolerance for other religious beliefs, which is certainly true. He quoted Washington’s famous letter to a synagogue, in which the President declared: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
As President, Washington masterfully wrote such letters to all of America’s major religious groups, nearly two dozen. They do not imply lack of specific religious faith by Washington but instead illustrate how he and other Founders believed that liberty of conscience is divinely protected. In contrast, Americans United seemingly has defended the new Obamacare mandate forcing religious groups to subsidize contraception and abortifacients. Washington would be stunned by such an assault on liberty, as would nearly every president up until the last several decades.
“Stories of Washington’s deep religiosity, such as tales of him praying in the snow at Valley Forge, can be ignored,” Boston concluded. “They are pious legends invented after his death.” Well, maybe. But the “legends” were widely believed because they were plausible and affirmed by many who were close to him. Nineteenth century biographers, like eventual Chief Justice John Marshall, who of course knew Washington well, and Henry Cabot Lodge, asserted Washington’s Christian piety. Twentieth Century biographers, like James Flexner, assumed that Washington, like themselves, saw religion as mostly a useful tool.
Twenty-first century biographers have resumed taking Washington’s faith more seriously. Peter Lillback’s Sacred Fire of 2006 cannonades nearly 1,200 pages of documentation into the argument that Washington was a serious and believing Anglican. With more brevity, Michael Novak’s Washington’s God of 2006 makes a similar case. Mount Vernon researcher Mary Thompson’s In the Hands of a God Providence of 2008 added to the argument, concluding with early 19th century theologian and Yale President Timothy Dwight: “If he was not a Christian, he was more like one than any man of [the] same description, whose life has been hitherto recorded.”
Biographer Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life of 2010 reflects the new scholarship, noting Washington “never conformed to such deism… for he resided in a universe saturated with religious meaning.” Washington’s intimates, including a nephew and Alexander Hamilton, recalled that the great man often privately prayed on his knees even while avoiding public spectacle. Although the iconic vignette is commonly mocked by scoffers, it’s not impossible, or even unlikely, that Washington escaped from prying eyes at his crowded Winter headquarters at Valley Forge to pray alone in the snowy woods. And even while trying to avoid public attention on his religious practice, Washington’s presence at church invariably was a scene. Chernow’s biography recalls one gushing eyewitness at Philadelphia’s Old Christ Church who saw a cloaked President Washington majestically departing the sanctuary amid organ music, nodding to a hushed crowd parting before him: “His noble height and commanding air… his patient demeanor in the crowd… his gentle bendings of the neck, to the right and to the left, parentally, and expressive of delighted feelings on his part, these with the appearance of the awed and charmed and silent crowd of spectators, gently falling back on each side, as he approached, unequivocally announced o the gazing stranger…behold the man!” No wonder poor Washington preferred to pray alone amid such admiring scrutiny.
Washington’s surviving private papers include no expressed doubts about Christianity but neither do they offer any theological treatises. Such private views he likely would have shared only with his wife, who destroyed their letters after his death, almost certainly on his instruction. He was intensely private and aware that every word and action had potentially vast impact on the fragile new nation. Magnificently, he left one of the best documented lives of the 18th century while preserving mystery about the private man.
As the nation’s father, such mystery was instrumental to national unity, in his own day, and today. As President, he told Virginia Baptists that everyone “ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according the dictates of his own conscience.” He told Quakers that religious liberty was “among the choicest of their blessings.” He told Roman Catholics: “May the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.”
Privately, Washington prayed and developed faith, guided by his lifelong Anglican practice, but keeping most details to himself, maybe his wife, and to God. This mystery, as other mysteries surrounding him, probably served and still serves the nation well.