George Washington and Religion: A Book Review
George Washington, the hero of American Revolution, is the main focus of this book. It is neither about his exploits in war nor his role in the building of the American nation. The book is primarily about Washington’s religious stance; that is, it is a question of religious belief. In the book, Paul Boller (1963) argued that Washington could never be a mere Deist (Deism is the belief that God is a passive force in the universe; that is, after the creation, God put the laws of nature at work for men to grasp and utilize).
The author argued that Washington was a believer of Providence, as evidenced by his numerous implicit public declarations of this faith. His letters to his friends indicated that, in private, Washington was a firm believer of the Christian church or more accurately the Christ-centered church (Eidsmoe, 199). In addition, Washington indicated in his personal letters the “need of a Grand Designer” for the building of the American nation. At some point, Washington argued to his cabinet that the Christian religion is a necessary ingredient for true religiosity and public accountability.
Although his confidence in Divine Providence was never fully understood, it was clear that he was never a mere Deist (Boller, 1963). As such, in this paper, a careful analysis (based from the book) is needed. The reader is advised to examine the facts presented in order to fully appreciate Washington’s true religious beliefs. One cannot separate the historical milieu that shaped his beliefs. Contentions Against the Belief that Washington Was a Christian There are some scholars who argued that Washington was a real Deist. Some of the arguments they presented are as follows:
1) Because Washington was a member of a Masonic lodge, it is highly probable that, in private, he was a Deist. Freemasonry rejected the idea that God is an active force in the universe. Because God established the laws of nature, it is only through men that progress and knowledge is possible. Freemasonry taught that man is the ultimate goal of creation, and as such, the direction of progress. Now, because Washington was a freemason, there is a high chance that he was a hard line Deist, comparable to that of Rousseau and Voltaire;
2) Washington never publicly declared his faith to Christ or to the ideals of one denomination. He supported the idea that religious liberty should be one of the primary goals of the state. Accidentally, this is also one of the highest values of freemasonry. Assuming that his freemasonic beliefs never influenced his idea about religious liberty, there is no counterargument to suppose that he was never a Deist. One may argue that he neither accepted nor denied himself as a Christian, primary for political purposes.
These political purposes might stem from the fact that he did not want the American nation to be divided by religious strife; 3) And, Washington’s mode of rationality was essentially Deist, not Christian. Schwartz (2006:102) argued that many of the practices of Washington were generally derived from the ideals of the French Revolution and the French reformers. These ideals were, in general, Deist in form and structure. Arguments Supporting that Washington Was a Christian Some scholars argued that Washington was an orthodox Christian (this is expounded in the book).
Some of the claims are as follows: 1) Although Washington often expressed God in a Deist way, he never regarded God as a passive force in the universe. In many of his public meetings, Washington implicitly stated the “active” God; that is, a God that forgives sins, punishes the wicked and greedy, brings bountiful harvests, and protecting the weak against the oppressor. This only proves that Washington was in every sense, an orthodox Christian; 2) By putting Washington into the historical framework of the 20th century, one sees the fact that he was never a Deist.
Unlike 20th century freemasonry (which strictly define the religious and profane), 18th century freemasonry was often mixed with orthodox Christianity. Members were allowed to practice their faith without due disregard for the ideals of the Masonic lodge. Benjamin Franklin and some of the Founding Fathers were both Masons and orthodox Christians. There was never a distinction between religion and the Masonic ideals; 3) And, because of his position as president of the newly established American republic, he was never expected to show partial favor to any existing denomination.
This fact forced him to spell the “commonalities” of the various religions; that is, he is never expected to show his private religious life. This fact is evident in many of his speeches. Foller (1963) concluded that Washington was a real Christian, not a strict Deist as some scholars suggested. Additional Comments A study of Washington’s religious beliefs, even though aided with facts, is still loaded with controversies. One claim argued that Washington was a Deist Christian, a term most notably attached to the French Reformers.
A Deist Christian is an individual who believes the fundamentals of Christian creationism, while rejecting the idea that God is an active force in the universe. Scholars who support this hypothesis derive their theory from the following evidences: 1) Washington’s letters indicated that he was both a supporter of Christian beliefs and rational Deism. In his letter to his friend Benjamin Franklin, he argued that “it is impossible for God to intervene in the minutest detail of human existence, lest He Himself is the expression of man’s will” (Toynbee, 228).
Note that Washington here expressed his belief to God as well as the Masonic doctrine of divine passivity; 2) And, Washington was never fully supportive of Christian celebrations and rituals. Many of his colleagues noted that Washington was an infrequent churchgoer and a mild irrational disregard for the divine foundation of the constitution. Conclusion The problem with an analysis of Washington’s religious beliefs lies on the fact that many of the evidences presented by contending parties are either intentionally misinterpreted or inaccurately interpreted (lacks cohesion and logic).
Because of this problem, a study of Washington’s beliefs must be reconstructed based on precision of facts, accuracy to historical framework, and intricacy to logic. Works Cited Boller, Paul. George Washington & Religion. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963. Eidsmoe, John. Christianity and the Constitution. Missouri: Baker Books House Company, 1987. Schwartz, Barry. Washington and Deism. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 2006. Toynbee, Arnold. A History of the World. London: London Publishing House, 1967.Sample Essay of EduBirdie.com