Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hagiography in Action:

In long debating George Washington's religion and arguing he wasn't a Christian in the orthodox Trinitarian sense, I've noticed a sort of strange anger from the "Christian Heritage" crowd when you try to show them Washington wasn't a "real Christian" like them. Such anger permeates Peter Lillback's book (but not Michael and Jana Novak's). Here is one such example from WorldMagBlog's thread (a place I go, with many thoughtful and some not so thoughtful evangelicals, to test some of my arguments). The commenter informs me:

You present his pastor as the defining arbiter of Washington's Christianity. Why do you prefer the pastor's opinion to Washington's? It is because it is convenient to your argument and to your bias, not necessarily because it is true. I disagree with my pastor on aspects of our congregational communion practice. But that does not make me a generic deist. You must look at the whole man, the totality of his witness over the years, not isolated quotes or incidents that are convenient to your biased view.

George Washington, April 30th, 1789

Almighty GOD; we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection, that thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; and entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens of the United States of America at large. And finally that Thou wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of The Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech thee, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen

Beyond quotes come many significant deeds over the years such as Washington's establishment of the military chaplaincy — in his day, a Christian chaplaincy.

During the French and Indian war, Washington for two years repeatedly tried to persuade Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia to authorize a chaplain for his command, which was then guarding the Virginia frontier. He wrote:

The want of a chaplain does, I humbly conceive, reflect dishonor upon the regiment, as all other officers are allowed. The gentlemen of the corps are sensible to this, and did propose to support one at their private expense. But I think it would have a more graceful appearance were he appointed as others are.

This would have been a Christian chaplaincy, since those who did serve in other units were mostly Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

Finally, when Washington took command of the Continental Army he issued this order, thus establishing the United States Army chaplaincy:

New York, July 9th, l776

The Honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-Three Dollars and one third dollars pr month - The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives - To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger -The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.

Jon Rowe, this was not the act of some generic deist as you contend. It was the act of a faithful and committed Christian. Washington's entire career gives evidence of that. It is a dishonor to his memory to twist his life and witness to conform to your bias.

You further contend that he "rejected nearly all of the tenets of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity. You provide no evidence to support that statement. I do not believe you. Considering the biased weakness of your general argument, you are going to have to provide more that just an unsupported statement before this additional claim can receive any credibility.

Here is my response:


In [post number] 87, the prayer you reproduce is spurious (do you want me to reproduce the original of the Circular to the States, from which it is based?). That he did so little talking about Jesus is one reason why most scholars don't think Washington was Christian.

Washington, in his talks of chaplaincy, made it clear that he wanted them to be of the religion of the soldiers, most of whom were Christians. He had no problem with John Murray, a Universalist who denied eternal damnation. According to such logic, he would have wanted Muslim chaplains for Muslim soldiers, if we had any.

Washington also invariably spoke of "Christianity" in the context of morality or virtue; he believed religion's prime purpose was not to save souls but to make men moral. As such if the ends are achieved, the means don't matter. He could just have easily told a bunch of Muslim soldiers to display the character of good Muslims.

You can say what you want about me twisting whatever, the bottom line is the majority of scholars and historians are more or less on my side and not yours.

In fact, I'm probably to the right of them. They are likely to categorize him as a "Deist," I don't. Because he believed in an active personal God, and in prayer, I think the term "theistic rationalist" better describes his creed. Think of that as sort of a mean between deism and Christianity with rationalism as the trumping element. The term was coined by a conservative evangelical. And Dr. Gary Smith, chair of the history dept. at Grove City College endorses theistic rationalism, not Christian or Deist as the best descriptor of Washington's creed.

1 comment:

Hercules Mulligan said...

Still no quotes from Washington proving he WASN'T a believer.

A lack of quotes mentioning "Jesus" doesn't prove Washington disbelieved in His divinity, just like a lack of quotes on horses on Washington's part doesn't prove that he didn't love horses.