Tuesday, July 04, 2006

George Washington's Universalism:

I'm going to do a little bit more nitpicking on Michael and Jana Novak's conception of Washington's God. Check out their latest post on July 4 and God.

The Novaks, in their book, have noted that Washington's God is "Judeo-Christian" and not "Deist." "Deist" may not be the proper term for Washington's (or Franklin's or Jefferson's) God. But "Judeo-Christian" is clearly too restrictive.

Just because Judaism and Christianity, like Washington and the other key Founders, posit the notion of a warm intervening God that takes an interest in man's affairs, doesn't therefore mean the Founders' God is the God of the Bible, or as Novak likes to put it, the God who gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. In fact, our rationalistic Founders, of which Washington was one, doubted much of Revelation, specifically they doubted that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses.

The Novaks, like pretty much all scholars, have a theory which they are trying to peddle, and view the facts to support that theory. In particular, to support the notion that Washington's God was the God of the Bible, they stress one letter Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Savannah, in particular this passage:

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Because of that passage, the Novaks claim that Washington's God "is Jehovah" or "the Judeo-Christian" God. Well, I have a theory too. George Washington, like the other key Founders, was a religious universalist who believed that all (more or less) religions were valid ways to God. To the extent that Christianity makes exclusive claims about God is the extent that our key Founders' religion conflicts with orthodox Christianity.

As a universalist, Washington would "speak in the terms" of the particular religion he was addressing. Washington (as far as I know) only ever referred to God as Jehovah when addressing the Jews. Likewise, when Washington addressed his fellow Freemasons, he referred to God on their terms as "the Great Architect of the Universe." And, when Washington addressed the Cherokee Nation, Washington referred to God as "the Great Spirit," which is how they referred to God.

Paul Boller notes that Washington specifically crossed out the word "God" from one of his speeches (perhaps Boller was referencing the Cherokee speech, I'm not sure) to the Indians and specifically wrote in "the Great Spirit." George Washington and Religion, p 69 (note I don't have Boller's book but am referencing Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. thesis).

Using the Novak's method of categorization, when asked "who is Washington's God?" we could likewise say "the Great Architect of the Universe" the Freemasons worshipped, or even "the Great Spirit" the Cherokees worshipped.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Washington was a Mason, man.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I know. I could go further in the post. Freemasons were also universalistic in their creed. I think the point I was trying to stress was that Washington was more likely to use the phrase "Great Architect of the Universe" when speaking to his fellow Freemasons because he had a pattern of speaking about God in the terms of the folks he was addressing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Jon, I posted that for your amusement, because there's some wack stuff in the link.

Upon further inspection however, it seems the Ark of the Covenant is a major Masonic thang, and of course the 10 Commandments were what was inside. Which would make Novak correct, but not for the reasons he gives.

Not germane to the arguments at hand (I don't think), but curiouser & curiouser.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well that page is a hoot, nonetheless.

Brian Tubbs said...

Can you provide any direct evidence that George Washington disagreed with any of the fundamental tenets of Christianity?

Lest you think I'm asking you to prove a negative, consider that I (and many others, including the Novaks) can easily demonstrate that George Washington:

1. publicly declared his faith in an active, supernatural, authoritative GOD - a God that is very consistent with the Judeo-Christian conception

2. was a member of a Christian denomination (Anglican / later Episcopalian) and - outside of refusing to take Communion - gave every public indication that he agreed with its basic creeds

3. referred to Jesus Christ as the "Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" -- thus confirming his acknowledgment of Jesus as Deity

4. was well-read in the Bible

5. was believed by his closest relatives (his wife and grandchildren - who were his adoptive children) to be a Christian

These facts are easily argued from strong evidence.

Can you show me (other than his refusal to take Communion - which I'll grant) any direct evidence that offsets the above facts? Can you show from direct evidence that George Washington was a free-thinker who didn't believe in the Judeo-Christian God?

-Brian Tubbs http://americanfounding.blogspot.com

Jonathan Rowe said...

Okay. Let's look at each point.

1. All of the key Whig Founders commonly thought of as "Deists" (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) likewise invoked a warm-intervening Providence. If Deism by its nature posits a cold distant watchmaker, then none of those Founders were "Deists" (and Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams are on record denying the tenets of orthodox Christianity). And Washington's intervening God was entirely consistent with Franklin's and Jefferson's.

2. He attended about once a month, which is borderline nominal.

But again so were Jefferson and Madison (and Jefferson, like Washington was also a vestryman) During that time, most of the Deists and Unitarians were formally associated with Christian Churches. Formal church membership is not sufficient proof of orthodoxy.

3. You have to put this in context. In 20,000 pages of Washington's known writings, he systematically avoids mentioning Jesus Christ. There are only two references -- the one that you mentioned (where Christ isn't even mentioned by name) and his communication to the Delaware Indians. And, according to Gregg Frazer's Ph.D. dissertation, neither of those two documents were written in Washington's hand (often aids would write these kind of documents; the President could make changes and then sign off on them, or he could just sign off without making changes). The overall evidence of Washington personal belief in the Trinity is sorely lacking.

4. Virtually all of the elite Founders were. Jefferson and Adams knew the Bible as well as anyone. Indeed, if you want to be a critic of Scripture, it helps to know it.

5. Are you sure Martha believed him to be a Christian? I'm not aware of any evidence of that. I know Nelly Custis is on record stating she believed him to be Christian. But she may have been trying to salvage his reputation.

Which is a good place to discuss the context. Few people really understand the historical context of the Founders & Religion. On the secular left, you have the (false) belief that all of the Founders were Deists in the sense of beleving in a non-interventionist God. And that open Deism was a driving force. And on the religious right, you have the attempt to portray almost all of the Founders as orthodox Christians.

The reality is this: The elite group from which our Founders were drawn was imbibed with so called "infidel" principles (deism and theological unitarianism). While Paine and Allen may have been strict Deists, most of the key Founders -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Morris, Wilson, and Hamilton, believed in a warm Providence. "Unitarian" is probably a better description than "Deist." Gregg Frazer's term is "Theistic Rationalist." Calling them "unitarian" can confuse because only Adams was a member of the Unitarian Church.

Yet, even though the Founders privately rejected orthodox Christianity, such Churches were far more socially and legally entrenched, and one couldn't publicly deny orthodox Christianity without risking ruining one's reputation. Paine did so and paid the price. Jefferson was almost ruined for things he wrote in "Notes on the State of Virginia" which were far tamer than what we see in his personal correspondence. So such Founders had to maintain "religious secrets." And having such "secrets," in my opinion, stronly points in the direction of believing in such "infidel principles." And there is no question that Washington had "religious secrets," and refused to affirm the tenets of orthodox Christianity when pressed. This led Jefferson, Bird (James's son) Wilson, and Washington's own ministers to think he was a Deist or Unitarian. Jefferson claims that G. Morris told Jefferson that Morris was "in" on Washington's "secrets" and that Washington rejected orthodox Christianity, just like Morris did.

But ultimately Washington didn't leave any kind of "smoking gun" evidence which shows that he rejected or affirmed the tenets of orthodox Christianity.

I have a review of Novak's book coming out in a publication available at most Barnes & Nobles and Borders around the country. I detail more there. I'll let you know when it comes out.

Brian Tubbs said...

I appreciate your thoughtful and in-depth response.

For the record, I concur with you that it would be accurate to label (keeping 18th century terminology in mind) many of the leading Founders as Unitarian or Theistic Rationalists. In that group, I would put Ben Franklin, John & Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson (for most of his adult life).

I would consider James Madison a "skeptical" or "guarded" Christian. He grew up, fully embracing the Christian faith. To my knowledge, he never renounced it - though it's clear he entertained some doubts and worked closely with many critics of orthodoxy. I suppose calling him a "lukewarm" Christian for most of his public life would be accurate.

Alexander Hamilton was also in the Unitarian or Rational Theistic camp for most of his adult life, except that he seems to genuinely reaffirm his Christian faith and convictions toward the end of his life.

We differ primarily on Mr. Washington. A lot of your points are more suggestive than substantive. I would say that, given Washington's strict personal code of guarding who and what he associated with, his continued membership in the Episcopal Church is strong evidence that he was in, at least, basic agreement with its creeds.

I'll grant that it's possible Washington entertained some doubts about orthodox, organized religion. These were perhaps the "secrets" he was guarding - but I don't think you can prove the divinity of Jesus Christ is one of those things he doubted.

We must remember that the traditional Anglican church was never expressive in any kind of evangelical sense.

Therefore, I do not try to fashion Geo. Washington as a Bible-thumper or some kind of warm-hearted evangelical - the kind of image that D. James Kennedy casts. I don't go for that. Please understand. I think my position on GW is fairly balanced and moderate - it's just a bit more to the right than yours. :-)

Of course, there are other Founders that there is LITTLE doubt about... George Mason, Noah Webster, Patrick Henry, Roger Sherman, John Witherspoon, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Rush - these guys were all strong Christians in an emphatic biblical sense.