Saturday, November 22, 2008

Washington's Farewell Address & the "Christian Nation" Claim

When I saw the Acton Institutes' "The Birth of Freedom" premiere in Washington, DC, none other than Lou Sheldon -- a notable figure from the religious right -- was present in the audience and read from George Washington's Farewell Address during the Q & A session. I'm sure many of my readers know of the famous passage where Washington said:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports....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, this certainly provides ammo for those who wish to "lower" the wall of separation between Church and State; however, I see it oft-cited in order to prove the "Christian Nation" claim or Washington's orthodox Christianity. And it does neither. Arguably it expresses a heterodox unitarian sentiment.

First Washington's Farewell Address never specifies "Christianity" or "orthodox Christianity" as *the* religion that must support republican government. Although that kind of "religion" certainly would, as Washington's theory goes, suffice. And second its view of religion is entirely instrumental, utilitarian or "civil." What can religion do for government? And here is where we stumble upon the biggest disconnect between orthodox Christianity and George Washington's heterodox sentiments in his Farewell Address.

Orthodox Christians believe that the primary purpose of religion is to save souls, not necessarily make men moral and hence self-governable. And it's through Christ's blood atonement alone that men are saved. It's true that one can believe in both [my religion a) not only saves souls, but also b) provides wonderful civil utility in the way it makes men moral]. However, it seems to me that any serious orthodox Christian who really does believe that men are saved through Christ's blood atonement as the ONLY way to God would prioritize salvation over civil utility. And this is something that Washington NEVER did, even in his correspondence with the orthodox clergy where they seemed to talk past one another. Washington rarely if ever intimated to them that Christ was the only way to God and thanked them for saving men's souls (as you would expect him to do were he an orthodox Christian). Rather he invariably thanked them for making men moral and consequently supporting republican government.

The following from Washington praising Presbyterian Clergy is typical of his sentiment:

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.

Washington's praise for the clergy is all about civil utility. And because of their belief in the civil utility of religion, the key Founders elevated works over faith as more important towards salvation. As the theory goes, "sound" religion, in fact produces the virtue which supports republican government. And they found "sound religion" in, 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 this heterodox 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."

-- Ibid.

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.

Next, J. 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

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 resonates more with such heterodox belief system than with orthodox 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. 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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The question of salvation is---how shall I put this---above a politician's pay grade. There is a danger in looking too closely at a politician's personal beliefs: it is with their public acts that we must be concerned.

I tend to agree with your friend Jim Babka that the "Christian Nation" crowd tend to make rather shoddy arguments especially when trying to claim the Founders' personal beliefs are identical to their own. Seldom provable and more importantly, not terribly relevant. The heterodox John Adams' Inaugural Address still explicitly and singularly praises Christianity.

And George Washington, as his first Farewell Address [the "Circular to the States" of 1783 when he retired from the army] reads:

"...and, above all,
the pure and benign light of revelation, ha[s] had a
meliorating influence on mankind, and increased the
blessings of society."

which is hardly an "all religions are equal" sentiment.

Now, there's no question that Washington sagely avoids fueling sectarian fires with his generic mentions of God, but it's the properly political thing to give sectarian theological squabbles a wide berth. Or as Jefferson himself puts it...

"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..."

Now, Jefferson continues, "...and [I] think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions," which may be true in principle, but not necessarily.

Brad Hart said...

Washington's farewell address in a perfect example of how the founders longed for a republican society that sanctioned morality and virtue in the public square, but distrusted its influence in the halls of government.

I agree with Jon. I fail to see how this document proves Washington's orthodoxy. In all honesty, I think it proves the opposite. To be certain, Washington deeply believed in God, however, his public declarations of faith are MOST CERTAINLY unitarian in appearance.

Dan Atkinson said...


Where exactly are you getting your conclusion that Washington wasn't a devout believer? Washington's farewell address is the nail in the coffin for me when it comes to proving this issue. I fail to see how you are twisting this document to fit your own conclusion.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I never said he wasn't a "devout believer." In fact, I have long maintained Washington devoutly believed in an active intervening Providence. What I deny is that he was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian or that the Farewell Address in any way suggests that he was.

Hunter Baker said...

Jonathan, is your reference to Hamilton's faith definitive for his whole life? I know at least at the end he was writing, talking, and acting more like a Christian. Note his call for a Christian Constitutional Society and his attempts to receive Christian last rites as his death approached from gunshot wound.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Nice to see you, Hunter. Let's catch up soon.

Mr. Rowe has always acknowledged Hamilton's religiosity at the end of his life, but also that it wasn't as in great evidence during the actual Founding. The Farmer Refuted [1775] isn't overtly orthodox Christian.

Jonathan I would add this on Ben Franklin, from his letter to George Whitefield 1740:

"You will see in this my notion of good works, that I am far from expecting to merit heaven by them. By heaven we understand a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration. I can do nothing to deserve such rewards...Even the mixed, imperfect pleasures we enjoy in this world, are rather from God's goodness than our merit; how much more such happiness of heaven!"

So even as Franklin rejects "faith alone saves" in his 1735 quote you cite in the post, neither does he assert that good works will do the trick either.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ditto what Tom says. Most historians agree that Hamilton became an orthodox Christian after his son Philip died in a duel in 1801. His life (understandably) reached a low point then; and folks often turn to a more orthodox, less generic kind of religion for solace at those low moments.

Hunter Baker said...

This is pretty much the point I was making. I'm aware that his stronger Christianity was later in life. I questioned the broad characterization of him as an enlightenment rationalist without any nod to his later position.

Brian Tubbs said...

Washington used his Farewell Address to, among other things, argue that "religion and morality" are intertwined and that BOTH are essential for the health of the nation. Both are "indispensable pillars" to our nation.

Whether GW was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian is NOT AT ISSUE with respect to the Farewell Address. GW wasn't trying to make any claims concerning his own personal faith. He was arguing for an official, national faith or at least faith-based value system in this address.