Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Peter Lillback's New Article:

Peter A. Lillback has a new article posted on HNN here. Much of it reiterates earlier articles which I've commented on (see here). Lillback does say a few interesting things in the new article. For instance:

"It is tricky business to assign motives to scholars, although the maxim that the living can make the dead do any tricks they find necessary comes to mind."

Like trying to turn Washington into an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, eh?

Here is a passage of Lillback's with which I entirely agree:

His public and political life sought to unite a very diverse group of colonial soldiers in the military and competitive bodies of citizens in early federal America. This process of unification was facilitated by seeking the largest common denominator. This meant that personal religious concerns were normally subordinated in his public life.

However, that "diverse group" didn't consist of only orthodox Christian sects, even if such sects constituted a majority. As John Adams put it, speaking of America's religious demographics during the Founding era, and how that diversity necessitated a separation of Church and State:

The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them "Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President." This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.

-- John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812. Old Family Letters, 392-93; taken from James H. Hutson's "The Founders on Religion," 101-02.

One explanation why Washington and the other Founders were so generic regarding their public invocations of God is that, as men who denied various doctrines of orthodoxy (most notably the Trinity), if they put their specific cards on the table it would have damaged their reputation with the public. Though, Washington's unitarianism isn't as firmly established in the historical record as Adams', Jefferson's, Franklin's, and Madison's. Another plausible explanation -- one that would explain why a Trinitarian public figure likewise would be generic in his public supplications to God -- is that he recognized such religious diversity included a substantial minority of heterodox believers and Washington wanted to send them the message that it's their country too. Hence the "Lowest Common Denominator" God ultimately is some overriding Providence, about whose specific attributes public figures ought to be silent to include as many as possible into the LCD.

This could explain why Washington, as a Trinitarian, would refuse to speak publicly in Trinitarian terms. However, the "civil religion's" generic God also cuts against the "Christian America" idea because it seeks to include many non-Christian citizens into the LCD.

And, while one could, in theory, still be an orthodox Trinitarian Christian and endorse the notion of a civil religion which embraces deists, unitarians, and other non-Christians, arguably the religion of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, which was theologically unitarian and universalist, "easier fits" with such inclusive "civil religion" idea. After all, whereas a Trinitarian Christian believes only Trinitarian Christians worship the one true God, the theistic rationalists believed Trinitarians, unitarians, deists, Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Pagan Greeks and Romans all worshipped the same God. They also tended to invoke God in terms with which the addressees would be comfortable. Lillback and the Novaks make a big deal out of the one time Washington ever referenced God as "Jehovah," which was in an address to Jews. However, I counted two instances -- here and here -- where Washington, when speaking to the Native Americans, referenced God as "the Great Spirit," exactly as they did (and I've also uncovered Madison and Jefferson doing the same; Adams might have, I've haven't found his example yet). In fact, in the link dated November 29, 1796, Washington crossed out the word "God" and wrote in "the Great Spirit above." Do orthodox Christians really believe that "the Great Spirit" the Native Americans worshipped is the Triune God of the Bible?

Finally, Lillback writes the following with which I also agree:

The sheer magnitude of Washington's writings and correspondence makes it difficult to get a handle on his faith given that it was not the central point of his daily work. Only recently has this question been made easier to address. The digital revolution now makes searching Washington's vast corpus possible from the comfort of one's personal computer simply by accessing the sources through the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. Similarly, the letters to which Washington was responding have only recently been published or been put online, finally making them readily accessible to scholarly research. These letters are important for this debate in particular since they give added depth and insight to Washington's words as he expresses his faith and religious concerns.

Almost everything Washington has written is available online. In particular, this link, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799 Edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (1931-44) from the University of Virginia is where I first check all primary source information on Washington.

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