Wednesday, February 01, 2006

George Washington's God:

Michael Novak and his daughter have a book coming out (which I might buy, but if someone wants to send me a copy, I'll gladly review it). The book attempts to dispel the notion that Washington was a "Deist" and instead place him into or as close to the "Christian" or "Judeo-Christian" box as possible. He sums up the book's thesis in this article:

We do not, for instance, claim that Washington "loves" Jesus, as the villager openly supposes, probably in jest. Rather, we argue that, on balance, if you count up the evidence pro and con, Washington should probably be counted a Christian; indeed, a practicing Anglican. Still, this evidence is only probable, because Washington rarely said that he was a Christian, or confirmed it in writing that still survives (his wife Martha destroyed nearly all his personal letters to her).

By contrast, the evidence, public and private, that Washington was not a Deist is overwhelming. The names he used for God certainly do sound Deist, but the verbs he used for the actions he prays God to perform are unmistakably Jewish and Christian; in a word, biblical.

Novak is a far more learned, credible, and fair scholar than our favorite whipping boys -- David Barton, William Federer, D. James Kennedy, etc. -- but even Novak has an agenda. I've likewise have done extensive research on Washington's religious beliefs and thus, will raise a few points here (and in a few months, if I've read the book, give more feedback).

First, Novak seems to be playing the glass is half-full half-empty game. He points out the ways in which Washington's beliefs (and, in other work he's done, those of other Founders) are closer to "Christianity" or "Judeo-Christianity" than strict Deism, but fails to analyze how the details of the key Founders' religion may, like "Deism," seriously conflict with traditional Christianity.

From all of the meticulous research I have done, the best article, hands down, on the religion of the key Founders is this one by Gregg Frazer (who I understand teaches at a conservative Christian college). Though Frazer's article is not footnoted, all of the key Founders' discussion on religion, read as a whole and in context, confirms his thesis. And I think Frazer has written his (surely footnoted) entire Ph.D. thesis on the matter, which I'd love to see turned into a book.

One thing that Frazer notes is that while Deists by definition believe in a cold non-intervening God, Washington explicitly invoked a warm-intervening Providence. One of the few differences I have with Frazer is that he thinks it is then proper to remove Washington from the "Deist" box entirely.

Certainly, this is what Novak stresses in his work. In response, first, our notion that Deism refers exclusively to a strict non-intervening God may actually be imposing a modern historical understanding of the concept on Founding times. For instance, see my post on Jefferson on Deism, where I note Jefferson refers to the "Deism of the Jews" and defines it as simply "the belief of one only God" or generic monotheism.

Second, the historical evidence, even before Novak wrote his book, that Washington believed in a warm-intervening God as opposed to a cold-distant watchmaker, is beyond dispute. One of Washington's most distinguished biographers, Edwin Gaustad even coined the term "Warm Deist" to describe Washington's beliefs some time ago.

Third, not only did Washington believe in a warm intervening Providence, but likely so too did almost all of the other key Founders. Madison, Adams, Jefferson -- the one Founder most likely to be conceded as having "Deist" views, and Franklin -- who never referred to himself in adult life as anything other than a Deist, all likewise invoked a warm intervening Providence. Indeed, that is one of *the* most important findings of Frazer's research -- that the central tenets of the key Founders' (not all or perhaps even most of the Fathers, but rather the most influential and distinguished ones) religious beliefs strikingly paralleled one another's (though may have differed somewhat on the finer details). As Frazer comically notes:

As to their political opinions, it may be well to recall Jefferson's reflection, some fifty years after the fact, on the essential ideas animating the American Revolution: "[T]here was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects."

So who are these key Founders and what did they believe? They include, at the very least, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and some others. Those five are, without question, the five most important and distinguished Founders. Together they comprise the first four Presidents, the author of the Declaration, a majority of the drafting board of the Declaration, and the architect of the Constitution.

As noted, all of these Founders believed in a warm intervening God. But after that, many of the central tenets of their theology conflict with traditional orthodox Christianity as does Deism. Frazer writes:

Accordingly, the founders believed in a benevolent, active, and unitary God who intervenes in human affairs. Consequently, they believed that prayers are heard and effectual. They believed that the key factor in serving God is living a good and moral life, that promotion of morality is central to the value of religion, and that the morality engendered by religion is indispensable to society. Because virtually all religions promote morality, they believed that most religious traditions are valid and lead to the same God.

Though theistic rationalists did not believe that Jesus was God, they considered him a great moral teacher and held a higher view of him than did deists. They believed in a personal after-life in which the wicked will be temporarily punished and the good experience happiness forever. Although they believed that God primarily revealed himself through nature, they believed that some written revelation was legitimate. Finally, while they believed that reason and revelation generally agree with each other, theistic rationalists believed that revelation was designed to complement reason (not vice versa). Reason was the ultimate standard for learning and evaluating truth and for determining legitimate revelation from God.

In other words, they were theological unitarians who put their faith in Man's Reason over Biblical Revelation, disbelieved in eternal damnation, were "universalists" in the sense that they believed most religions contained the same Truth as Christianity, and were thus valid ways to God. And importantly, though they believed in an intervening God, they also believed the Bible was errant and privately ridiculed the miracles and prophesies contained therein which seemed to conflict with the laws of nature and science.

Even Novak anticipates this fact when he writes:

Washington's God, on the other furthering his own designs interposes himself in history. Indeed, so clever an artist is this Jehovah [sic] that he does not even need to perform miracles to achieve his purposes. All he needs to do is arrange contingencies so that human agents, acting under the general laws of nature, of their own free will make the decisions that accomplish his will.

In other words, such a God intervenes in man's affairs not by breaking the laws of nature but rather by manipulating probabilities consistent with science -- a God who does play dice with the universe. Such a God could therefore, take America's side in the Revolution and save Washington's life by having him shot at, his coat riddled with bullets, and yet "miraculously" survive without a scratch (like in Pulp Fiction). But such a God would not, on the other hand, part the Red Sea, have a virgin birth, walk on water, or turn water into wine.

What to call this religion and whether it qualifies as "Christianity" or even "Judeo-Christianity" is a matter of debate. Novak, for instance, says that Washington's beliefs were "[n]ot Deist, but Judeo-Christian." But that begs a few questions. First, why is it that "Deism" is not "Judeo-Christian" but Washington's beliefs were? Isn't Deism a "monotheistic" religion? And didn't the Judeo-Christian tradition (keep in mind, that such a term didn't exist during the Founding, and that neither Washington nor the other above mentioned Founders were Jews) invent monotheism?

We could call the Founders' religion a form of Deism; but the Founders' God intervenes. We could call it theological (small u) unitarianism; but folks would confuse that with the Unitarian Congregational Church (of which only Adams was a member). We could simply squish the terms "deist" and "unitarian" together into "deistic-unitarianism" (something I do). Frazer suggests the term "theistic rationalist" (a good description, but the Founders didn't call themselves that). We could even call such a religion a form of "Christianity"; but one thing is for sure: It is not orthodox Trinitarian, revealed Christianity, but something closer to the cafeteria liberal Christianity of the modern Era.

Jefferson was somewhat wrong in his prediction that "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian." Most of "those men" didn't join the Unitarian Church before they died. Yet, if Jefferson were actually using the word "Unitarian" to describe, not the Unitarian Church, but rather his and the other Founders' heterodox beliefs (after all, Jefferson himself never joined that Church), he was ultimately correct that such a belief system would indeed make powerful inroads in America.


Karen McL said...

This sounds very intersting - let me know if goes on your *recommended* list (when ya get a copy and give it a read through.)


Jonathan said...

Thanks. I will.