Giving credit where credit is due, this symposium from Regent University is well worth watching. Among others, Hadley Arkes, Daniel Dreisbach, Michael Novak, Michael Barone, and Marvin Olasky present interesting commentary much of which discusses the Founders and Religion. Dreisbach in particular goes over Washington's Farewell Address in meticulous detail. In that address Washington famously said,
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Now, while that sentiment certainly conflicts with extreme modern secularism ala Harris and Dawkins, and though on the surface, sounds as if it expresses traditional Christian piety, upon further reflection -- indeed if one realizes what the key Founders like Washington really personally believed -- it arguably expresses their religious heterodoxy.
The key Founders -- Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and some others -- believed that religion was primarily good because it fostered morality. And in this sentiment, all five, including Jefferson and Madison, were agreed. The orthodox Calvinistic Christians believed that the primary purpose of religion was to save souls. The key Founders elevated works over faith as more important towards salvation. And whereas orthodox Christians believed that only Christianity was true religion, the key Founders, including Washington, believed most if not all of the world religions of which they were aware were "sound" religions which provided the necessary moral supports which republics need and could save men's souls. These religions included, at the very least, Christianity, Deism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Native American Spirituality, and Pagan Ancient Greco-Roman worship.
Here are some quotations of the Founders expressing their heterodox anti-Calvinist notion that works are more important than faith:
"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."
-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.
"No point of Faith is so plain, as that Morality is our Duty; for all Sides agree in that. A virtuous Heretick shall be saved before a wicked Christian."
-- Benjamin Franklin, "Dialogue between Two Presbyterians," April 10, 1735.
"Faith is recommended as a Means of producing Morality: Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher. Thus Faith would be a Means of producing Morality, and Morality of Salvation. But that from such Faith alone Salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian Doctrine nor a reasonable one....Morality or Virtue is the End, Faith only a Means to obtain that End: And if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means."
Franklin's logic is quite clear: If non-Christian religions produce virtue in people, then those "good people" are saved via their works. So the primary aim of Christianity and all other religions is to produce good people. Christians might have some special advantage over the other world religions in that Jesus of Nazareth, our key Founders believed, was a great, arguably the greatest moral teacher. Thus, Christians' best hope for salvation was to follow his teachings and example. (Indeed, I'm not going to exhaust the historical record with quotations, but this past post on the Founders & higher law also features Franklin arguing along these lines.)
Finally, Adams on the true purpose of Christianity:
"...the design of Christianity was not to make men good Riddle Solvers or good mystery mongers, but good men, good magestrates and good Subjects...."
-- John Adams, Dairy, Feb. 18, 1756
As mentioned, the key Founders did talk of true religion and sound religion. An orthodox Christian hearing that message might conclude they referred only to Christianity. But that is a mistake. From my research, sound religion means -- as Franklin put it to Ezra Stiles -- only that one believe in the following:
I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this.
In other words, nothing about the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, inerrancy of Scripture, or anything that distinguishes Christianity from the other world religions. Indeed, by removing what distinguishes Christianity, that allows non-Christian religions to qualify as "sound." (Or, if anything distinguished Christianity, in their minds, it was Jesus' moral teachings being better than anything else in other world religions). As Franklin goes on:
These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them.
Note: According to the Founders, people could believe in all sorts of things in addition to the generic theism that forms the basis of "sound religion." And these additional things were at best, harmless dogmas, at worse "corruptions" of true religion which brought disputes, often bloody. But these additional tenets happen to be the very things that distinguish one belief system like orthodox Christianity from another, like Islam. Here Franklin notes the unimportance of the Trinity -- a central teaching of orthodox Christianity:
As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire...I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure.
Jefferson stated something remarkably similar. In this letter to James Fishback, Sept. 27, 1809, Jefferson connects religion with morality, just as Washington did, but further specifies that all world religions produce such morality:
Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words 'this do in remembrance of me' cost the Christian world!...We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions.
Through this perspective, go back and reread Washington's Farewell Address and see not only does it perfectly fit with the above quoted beliefs of Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson (indeed the Address was written by Hamilton, who like them was a theistic rationalist, not a Christian), arguably it's more in tune with such heterodox belief system than with Christianity (even ultimately, it if was consistent with both belief systems). Washington never said one need be Christian in order to be saved but rather that religion is necessary for morality. Indeed, he/they believed one was saved, not via Christ's Atonement, but via virtuous behavior. Washington further never stated in that Address that only the Christian religion or "the Bible" provided the necessary supports which all Republics need, even if I'm sure, many in nation got that message. Washington's Address represented a brilliant use of abstractions where he could express his heterodoxy in a way which seemed consistent with the prevailing orthodoxy of the day, yet still not outright lie.
Learned folks from both sides -- the religious right and secular left -- who, like me, have studied the historical record in detail still don't seem to fully appreciate this dynamic. Peter A. Lillback and Michael and Jana Novak conclude that were Washington a deist he was dishonest in the way he mislead pious folks or the nation by saying things which contradicted strict deism. They conclude were he an honest man, Washington must have been Christian, not deist. Indeed, even Brooke Allen accuses Jefferson of being dishonest when he says things too "religion" friendly -- praising Christianity, etc. -- for deism. I disagree with both.
If you understand what they really personally believed, we see these Founders did not explicitly lie to the public or pious folks; when Jefferson praised Christianity, he meant it. But what he praised about the Christian religion wasn't necessarily what orthodox Trinitarians thought most important. Jefferson valued the general theism of Christianity and Jesus' moral teachings while despising the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and other doctrines of orthodoxy.
These key Founders did, I think, believe things which orthodox folks would term "heterodoxy" or "infidelity." Intuitively, they didn't want their reputations so ruined. Thus, when they publicly spoke, they often brilliantly used generalities and abstractions, and otherwise built bridges of lowest-common-denominators between themselves and the orthodox believers so they didn't have to "lie" or contradict their personal beliefs, and could say things which on the surface seemed to resonate with orthodox Christianity; but beneath the surface, their personal "heterodoxy" remained.
It was a bit of a game they had to play; they walked on egg-shells. Perhaps in hiding in religious closets and not putting their "infidelity" on the table when so pressed, they were, at worst, misleading; but rarely if ever did they outright lie. Jefferson perfectly captured this not too well understood dynamic when he wrote about Washington, recounting an incident where a group of pious ministers pressed Washington about what he really believed, but he wouldn't play ball:
Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they tho[ugh]t they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice.
Jefferson then gives Gouverneur Morris's apparent opinion of Washington's orthodoxy:
I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.
Indeed, Washington corresponded with pious clergy throughout much of his life, often having to be cunning, carefully watching his words. Many believed him to be a pious Christian, and many had their doubts. His own ministers accused him of being a deist! One gets a sense in reading the correspondence that they were trying to "feel him out."
One can fault Lillback's and the Novaks' books for not properly understanding this dynamic whey they read "orthodoxy" or "pious Christianity" into Washington's often nebulously written words. Yet, Washington purposefully chose his words that way because he need to speak in ways which orthodox Christians would find acceptable. Lillback and the Novaks carry on the tradition of the pious Christians to whom Washington bore no apparent animosity and with whom he often corresponded. These Christians during the Founding era likewise "read in" what they wanted to Washington's words to make themselves more comfortable with his beliefs. Washington didn't correct their misimpression by stating -- "no, I really believe in X, which you would call 'infidelity'" -- but why should he have? He didn't want his public reputation ruined! As long as he didn't outright lie -- which he didn't -- I'd say his "honor" remained intact.
Lillback writes of such "Presbyterian Praise For Presidential Piety" (p. 226) -- a group of such wrote to Washington praising him for being a pious Christian. He wrote back:
While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon Heaven as the source of all public and private blessings; I will observe that the general prevalence of piety; philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy seems, in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and conforming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories and protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.
I desire you to accept my acknowledgments for your laudable endeavors to render men sober, honest, and good Citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government.
Lillback, reading in what he wants, sees this response as an affirmation of Washington's Christian orthodoxy, something no "Deist" could write. But such response is entirely consistent with what we have seen from Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin. Indeed, when Washington states "for no man, who is profligate in his morals...can possibly be a true Christian" this may be consistent with James 2 -- "faith without works is dead" (what Lillback argues). However, nowhere does Washington state that men are justified through faith! And such response is every bit as consistent with Jefferson's anti-Calvinistic notion "that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power...."
And indeed, Lillback entirely misses a clue Washington left, perhaps a "slip" in writing to pious Presbyterians, of his heterodoxy. After Washington stated, "for no man, who is profligate in his morals...can possibly be a true Christian," he then adds "or a credit to his own religious society." Washington's sentiments are entirely consistent with Franklin's idea that Christianity's primary purpose is to make people good and following Franklin's logic -- "if the End be obtained, it is no matter by what Means" -- non-Christians can be saved if their creed fosters virtuous behavior. Hence, Washington's addition of "or a credit to his own religious society" right next to "a true Christian."
Washington ends his letter: "I desire you to accept my acknowledgments for your laudable endeavors to render men sober, honest, and good Citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government." Which is exactly what Adams stated above: "...the design of Christianity was not to make men good Riddle Solvers or good mystery mongers, but good men, good magestrates and good Subjects...."
In sum, while one could analyze Washington's words to be consistent with orthodox Christianity, arguably his words are more consistent with the heterodox notion that elevates works over faith as essential for salvation and holds non-Christians can be saved through good works.
This analysis destroys Lillback's strawman conclusion that this event of Washington's correspondence shows "[e]ither Washington was a Christian, or he was a deceptive Deist. If he were the latter, his claim to be a man of honesty and character...was just as much of a sham as his counterfeit Christianity and his pretense of piety." p. 229.
Finally, if interested in what the key Founders believed happens when one isn't saved via good works, the answer is such men would be temporarily proportionately punished and then eventually redeemed; they were theological universalists who believed all would eventually be saved.
Washington is a tough nut to crack because he was so reticent to discuss his particular beliefs. His "strict deist" strawman is easily knocked down. However, I've yet to see the Novaks, Lillback or any scholar offer anything compelling that indicates Washington believed in orthodoxy Christianity as opposed to what Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison believe in. To me, his words (and deeds) resonate more so with their heterodox belief system than with orthodox Christianity.