Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dialog on Washington's Religion Continues:

At American Creation Brian Tubbs left an apt comment on my long post that tried to put Washington's religious beliefs into perspective.

Good post, Jon. But, you've only cast some doubts here and raised some questions. You have not shown that GW rejected the Trinity or the deity of Jesus.

I think all we've established here is that there's an element of mystery to GW's Christian doctrine. This much, I readily grant.

And Tom Van Dyke left the next comment about "burdens":

Well, Brian, I must admit I don't see much "Christian" in GW's doctrine either. Claiming him for Christianity by default---by what he didn't say, which seems to be Liliback's argument---doesn't rock for me. Burden of proof must be shared, and made by affirmative argument.

In fact, the most explicitly theological thing from Washington I've seen is Masonic, and I've seen nothing comparably "Christian":

"At the same time, I request you will be assured of my best wishes and earnest prayers for your happiness while you remain in this terrestrial mansion and that we may hereafter meet as brethren in the eternal Temple of the Supreme Architect."---from a 1792 letter

Indeed I agree both sides should equally share the burden. And I've searched for smoking guns in Washington's 20,000 pages of known recorded writings and speeches and on the doctrines of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, there are none. You can try the search engine there and see for yourself. There's lots of evidence on Washington's belief in Providence and his support for religion in general, how it fosters virtue necessary for republican government. And there's evidence of his positive feelings on Christianity, but no smoking guns on his belief in doctrines like the Trinity, Atonement or infallibility of the Bible. He simply never discusses these things. And when one peers into the void of abstract God words like "Providence" that's when folks on various sides "read in" their desires, not what Washington specifically said.

In Peter Lillback's case, he reads in belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. If you watch the following video of him discussing Washington's creed, he too discusses "burdens" and acts as though the fact that Washington regularly worshipped in the Trinitarian Anglican/Episcopal Church is something that skeptical scholars would have a hard time answering.

Not only is this claim easily answered, but it's answered with a factual dynamic that probably disturbs Lillback, such that he and likeminded folks desire to explain it away (he certainly didn't adequately deal with it in the 1200 pages of "George Washington's Sacred Fire"): Key Founders commonly worshipped in Trinitarian Churches while privately disbelieving in orthodox doctrines. This certainly applies to Jefferson, Franklin, Marshall, and probably James Madison whom George Ticknor founder of the Boston Public library testified "pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines." In John Adams' case his Congregational Church -- a Church with Trinitarian origins -- had ministers that preached these unitarian doctrines as of 1750! Indeed in many ways, unitarianism was spearheaded by ministers coming out of Trinitarian Churches (like Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, who preached Unitarianism in the English Presbyterian Churches, and more New England Congregational ministers that I can name in a short space) who rejected the official Trinitarian doctrines of their churches.

Lillback in his book does attempt at a smoking gun to prove Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism: Oaths that he took while becoming a Godfather and a Vestryman in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. As the argument goes, if Washington not only worshipped in a Trinitarian Church but took oaths to Trinitarianism while privately disbelieving in those doctrines, he was a dishonorable hypocrite. [I guess in the same sense that folks who get divorced are dishonorable hypocrites because they -- the ones who got married the Church -- pledged in a covenant before God "till death do us part."]

Lillback et al. paint themselves into a corner by invoking such an argument. And that's because if we take those oaths too seriously, we might be forced to conclude that he was such an oath breaker. Washington never took oaths to low church latitudinarian orthodox Trinitarian Anglicanism (because those oaths didn't exist), what Lillback argues Washington believed in. Rather those oaths were high church Anglican oaths that not only commanded believers to engage in the Lord's Supper (which Washington systematically refused to do) but pledge loyalty to the King of England! You can read more on them here.

And indeed, many American Anglican colonists remained Tory loyalists precisely because they took similar oaths and believed they had a Christian duty to remain loyal to the King of England. Taking these oaths too literally forces one to conclude that Washington violated his oaths by not just engaging in but leading a rebellion against said King to whom he pledged, before God, his loyalty.

Further on the matter of Washington's systematic avoidance of communion, Lillback, engaging in pure speculation, constructs an argument that it had something to do with Washington's political disagreement with Dr. James Abercrombie and the other high church Tory Episcopalians. Well indeed, if you worship in the Anglican Church, a church whose theology pledged itself to loyalty to England, you are bound to hear a lot of Tory sentiments. The fact that Whigs could remain formal members of a Church whose official theology posited Tory loyalty to England raises the same issues of hypocrisy that unitarians worshipping in Trinitarian churches does. Why didn't the Whigs like George Washington just leave the Church of England? There were no Unitarian Churches for them to join, but plenty of Baptists or Presbyterian ones. That's because, as with Roman Catholics like Joe Biden, it's a very common thing in the present and the past to be attached to a Church in sentiment and tradition but not believe in all of the Church's official theological stances, be it on loyalty to England, abortion, birth control, or the Trinity.

And I would note, though Washington never told us why he systematically avoided communion the most common sense answer is he disbelieved in what the act stood for: Christ's Atonement. That's far more common sensical than political problems he may have had with Tory preachers or Tory doctrine in the Church. The Lord's Supper does NOT represent communing with your fellow believers; it represents Christ's Atonement. Sitting in a church and worshipping with other people represents communion with them. And that's something Washington was willing to do with Tories.

Why is this important? The only evidence for Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism is indissolubly tied to his membership in the Anglican/Episcopal Church. If one weakens the case for Washington's belief in official Anglican/Episcopal doctrines (like pledging loyalty to Great Britain) then out of logical necessity one simultaneously weakens the case for positive evidence of Washington's belief in orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.

I would concede that showing Washington was only formally connected to the Anglican/Episcopal Church and didn't necessarily buy all that it stood for is not negative evidence against his orthodox Christianity. He really could have been a "Christ only" orthodox Trinitarian Protestant who disregarded the high church doctrines that were superfluous to Christianity anyway. But there is absolutely no positive evidence for this. The only positive evidence for Washington's orthodox Trinitarianism comes through official Anglican/Episcopal doctrine. And as we've seen, that evidence rests on shaky grounds.

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