Monday, February 18, 2013

George Washington's Christian (?) Faith


George Washington's birthday seems like an appropriate time to think about his religious beliefs and life, especially since the National Prayer Breakfast was held earlier this month, giving President Obama his fifth opportunity in that venue to assert his Christian identity. Gary S. Smith, of the Center for Vision and Values, has already written about the double-standard by which the faiths of both Washington and Obama are interpreted, and Smith, like other scholars, states that the exact nature of Washington's faith is unknowable and much less clear than Obama's.
Washington did believe in "Providence," that there was a divinity intervening in worldly affairs, and this divinity seemed to be on the side of the new republic. We know that Washington wrote many times of the value of Christianity as a guiding influence on the new republic's citizens; however, he was equally clear that the character-building nature of religious institutions was not exclusive to Christianity, extending at least to Judaism, if not to other religions. Washington was at least a cultural Christian, but we have no evidence that he was what we would call today a "born again" Christian.
If being a Christian means that one goes to a Christian Church fairly regularly, supports that church monetarily, believes in an Old Testament deity that acts in the world but whose relationship is far from personal, then Washington was a Christian. He was reared in the Church of England (later the Episcopal Church), attended services regularly, and there is no shortage of Washington's statements regarding the role of religion in civil life, in the destiny of America, and in the affairs of the world. But many of today's Christians would argue that a Christian is one who "accepts Jesus as a personal savior," and for that there is absolutely no evidence in Washington's life. In fact, there are few instances of Washington's having said the name "Jesus" in any of his public or private writings or speeches.
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