Friday, January 23, 2009

George Washington's Theistic Rationalism:

At American Creation, Tom Van Dyke comments:

I hear Hamilton and were Washington were "theistic rationalists" all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.

I'll save Hamilton for a later day and focus on Washington. I respectfully disagree. I could just as easily turn this around and state:

I hear Washington was an orthodox Christian all the time, a speculation that is at worst false and at best is unprovable.

Elsewhere Tom noted Washington's Farewell Address where he stated:

"The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles." [Emphasis added.]

In his PhD thesis, Dr. Gregg Frazer quotes this as evidence of Washington's theistic rationalism, not his orthodox Christianity. And that's because the people of the United States were not all orthodox Christians. So whatever this "same religion" was, it was NOT orthodox Christianity. Washington knew there were theological unitarians among them. Indeed, the 2nd & 3rd Presidents who followed him were theological unitarians. And one bit of eyewitness testimony from George Ticknor, founder of the Boston Public Library, claims Madison identified as a "unitarian." Washington himself may have been a theological unitarian (he certainly didn't talk in Trinitarian terms). Washington gave his imprimatur to an address by Richard Price that slammed the Trinity.

Washington also didn't seem to have a problem with the Trinitarian Universalists who denied eternal damnation. As he wrote to them:

I thank you cordially for the congratulations, which you offer on my appointment to the office I have the honor to hold in the government of the United States.

It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society.

Further, Washington defended the Universalist John Murray as a Chaplain.

Washington also didn't seem to have a problem with the Swedenborgians, who taught an extremely novel view of the Godhead that was neither Unitarian nor Trinitarian. As he wrote to them:

But to the manifest interpretation of an over-ruling Providence, and to the patriotic exertions of United America, are to be ascribed those events which have given us a respectable rank among the nations of the earth. --

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.

Your Prayers for my present and future felicity were received with gratitude; and I sincerely wish, Gentlemen, that you may in your social and individual capacities, taste those blessings which a gracious God bestows upon the Righteous.

Washington also knew of Jews and recognized their civil and religious rights under US law, which destroys the claim that some Christian Nationalists posit that "religion" in the US Constitution originally meant "Christianity" only. As he wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

Washington also knew of Roman Catholics in America and didn't seem to have a problem them. As he wrote:

And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

Finally, on the American Indians. I've noted before, when speaking to unconverted Natives, twice Washington termed God "The Great Spirit" (actually prayed to that name) intimating that UN-converted Natives worshipped the same God that Christians do. I've also read every single time Washington approved of converting the Natives to Christianity and it was never for orthodox reasons. The orthodox reason is Indians are in a state of spiritual darkness, they worship a false god and need to be saved. Washington's reasons were either the Indians wanted to convert and/or converting the Indians to Christianity helped to better civilize and assimilate them.

So now go back and rethink the passage in Washington's Farewell Address where he noted, "With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion,..." Unitarian or Trinitarian (or like the Swedenborgs, neither), eternal damnation or universal salvation, Roman Catholic or Protestant, indeed perhaps Jewish, Christian, or Native American spirituality, it's all the "same religion," the differences among them being only "slight shades." This is not orthodox Christian political theology, but rather what Dr. Gregg Frazer has termed "theistic rationalism."

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