As we approach George Washington’s birthday—so often lost these days in the good shopping bargains of a long holiday weekend—it seems fitting to celebrate the whole man Washington was in light of the hottest issue in the world just now, religion. Most historians of the last hundred years have said the Father of Our Nation was a deist (in his excellent recent biography, Joseph Ellis called Washington a “lukewarm Episcopalian and quasi-Deist”) and suggest, along the way, that his virtues were Stoic rather than Christian, and his appeals to Providence rather more Greek and Roman than biblical. Since Washington speaks seldom of Jesus Christ, and almost never invokes the Savior or Redeemer or Trinity but prefers to use philosophical names for God (”Beneficent Author of all good,” “Divine Providence,” “Almighty Ruler of the Universe”), it is easy to think he was a deist.
A more sustained investigation into Washington’s God, however, makes all claims that he was a deist highly problematic and finally untenable.
Deism is not exactly a creed with clear tenets; it is more like a tendency of the mind; a movement like rationalism or romanticism; and, in the view of some historians of ideas, a half-way marker slowly moving from Jewish or Christian orthodoxy toward early modern science. The general drift of deism is that the originating and governing force of the universe is the god of modern rationalists (Newton, Spinoza, et al.), not at all like the Great God Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible. Deists prefer the god of reason to the God of revelation.
The latter has a special love and care for particular peoples and persons, unlike the deist god, who is impersonal and indifferent to the world he sets in motion. The God of revelation intervenes and interposes in historical events and personal lives, and hears and answers prayers; the god of reason does no such things. At the same time, from various motives some Christians, even bishops and clergymen, described themselves as deists as well as Christians.
Still, in one sense “deist” is intended as the opposite of “Christian” or “Jewish,” and incompatible with them. To say that Washington is a deist is in this sense to derogate from his being Christian. The evidence on this point comes down to this: When Washington prays and urges the nation (or his army) to pray, does he expect God to care about the fate of the American cause, as distinct from the British cause, since they also pray to the same God? Does he imagine God actually interposing himself in the events of history? Or inspiring a human mind with ideas, or forgiving sins?
The most important answer to these questions is found in the prayers that, as general and as president, Washington publicly urged upon the army and the nation. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 declared it “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
In a letter announcing his retirement from the army at the close of the War, he wrote: “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Clearly these samples, only a small part of what might be adduced, are not the prayers of a deist to an impersonal, nonintervening god. These are the words of someone who expects God to be deeply involved in our nation’s welfare. Why? Because he made the world for liberty, and our nation was, under God, a pioneer in political, civil, and religious liberties.
These are the prayers, the non-deistic prayers, which gave General Washington fortitude and hope in the very dark days of more than 230 years ago, in 1776. Now again, we are a nation in great need, under the powerful threat of a murderous worldwide terrorism. So it does not seem wrong for us, either, to “beseech the kind Author of these blessings ... to dispose us to merit the continuance of His favors.”
Published in First Things February 21, 2007