Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lessons from Washington's First Inaugural

When it comes to discussing George Washington's First Inaugural, the debate on this site seems to focus on whether he added "so help me God" at the end of his official oath. Even if Mr. Soller and other like-minded activists succeed in casting doubt on the historical tradition (which, of course, holds that Washington said those words), I'm reminded of the phrase "cutting off the nose to spite the face."

***For more on this, see my article "So WHAT if Washington Didn't Say 'So Help Me God'"?

There are deeper, and much clearer, lessons to be gleaned from Washington's First Inaugural Address. And, since this blog deals with the religious dimensions of our founding, I will focus on the religious nature of Washington's First Inaugural.

What follows is the key portion of Washington's First Inaugural, where he calls on the American people to embrace a deeper faith in and obedience to Almighty God....

Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.

As one can see, there's a lot of meat to what President Washington says in this important address. Too often we get lost in debates over whether GW was an orthodox Trinitarian evangelical or whether he said "so help me God" in the oath. These are peripheral debates to the central, moral leadership that George Washington provided our early Republic.

There are several lessons to be learned from Washington's First Inaugural, but I will focus on only three....

1. The American people should clearly and unequivocally embrace the EXISTENCE of God and their reliance on Him.

2. The American people should ADORE God - and that OBVIOUSLY means more than just a casual, dismissive "Yeah, I believe in God, but..." No, Washington is calling on the American people to embrace a deep, meaningful, contemplative relationship with God.

3. The United States has been blessed by God - and will continue to receive God's blessings, based upon their continued homage, adoration, and obedience.

Let's not mince words here or allow ourselves to get lost in some kind of detached, abstract, academic exercise. George Washington is sounding like an Old Testament prophet in this speech. Washington is celebrating America's new government, but he's also expressing some trepiditation and wants the American people to keep their prayers and their faith going.

I am reminded of the words of the late Supreme Court Justice William Douglas: "We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."

George Washington would've agreed!

7 comments:

Brad Hart said...

Very well done, Brian. I've read the post a few times and cannot find anything to disagree with. Maybe somebody else will, but from my point of view you are right. Regardless of Washington's specific religious beliefs -- or the lack thereof -- it is clear that he was a man of faith. Though there are a number of specifics that we can argue about, I think it is clear that Washington was a believer in God.

Nicely done!

jimmiraybob said...

Almighty Being...Great Author...Invisible Hand...benign Parent of the Human Race...

Why wouldn't the Christian, Jew, Muslim, deist, pagan, or for that matter American Indian (Iroquois delegate perhaps) not equally feel comfortable and fulfilled with such a fine address. I'm sure this speaks as well to today's new ager and mystic.

As a non-theist I feel moved and humbled by the soaring nature and sentiment of his no doubt carefully chosen words.

However, to be an unequivocal supplication to the God of Abraham (or to be a clarion call to Christianity or Christian virtue alone), a few more specifics would have been helpful. For instance, instead of "Almighty Being" etc., he might have gone with Almighty God of Abraham or Father of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He might have implored the nation to heed more closely to the Bible and spoken specific verse as an illustration.

I'm not arguing the nature of Washington's faith as I wouldn't be much bothered either way, but these words just do not rise to a definitive proof that he was compelling the nation to Christianity (orthodox or unorthodox), which it seems the post is hinting at. If I'm wrong and the post is extolling a general call to deism and civic virtue then my apologies for assuming wrongly.

Brad Hart said...

Jimmyraybob writes:

"Why wouldn't the Christian, Jew, Muslim, deist, pagan, or for that matter American Indian (Iroquois delegate perhaps) not equally feel comfortable and fulfilled with such a fine address. I'm sure this speaks as well to today's new ager and mystic."

Yes, you are exactly right. Any and all religions would be comfortable with Washington's public recognition/invocation of religion. I don't think that Mr. Tubbs is arguing that Washington was EXCLUSIVELY a Christian in his view. Instead he is simply pointing out that Washington was a RELIGIOUS man.

Brian Tubbs said...

Exactly, Brad. Washington's First Inaugural was not exclusively Christian. It included Christianity and alluded to biblical themes. Washington ties America's fortunes to the degree to which the American people adore and obey God. Pretty much what the Old Testament prophets had to say about Israel and Judah. But, aside from that, the speech is carefully crafted to be unifying and not divisive. And for that, I commend Washington.

bpabbott said...

"[...] the debate on this site seems to focus on whether he added "so help me God" at the end of his official oath."

At least from my end, the reason for this focus is because such claims are essentially lies (a positive assertion in the absence of compelling evidence).

I don't see such a focus being anti-religious or pro-religious. It is a matter of principle.

jimmiraybob said...

I have to admit that when I read the post I thought the assertion was that GW endorsed the specified lessons stated. Given the referral to "Him", I thought the implication was that GW was endorsing Christianity as opposed to a general sense that religion and morality were necessary to maintain public virtue.

Brian Tubbs said...

By "specified lessons," are you referring to....

****

1. The American people should clearly and unequivocally embrace the EXISTENCE of God and their reliance on Him.

2. The American people should ADORE God - and that OBVIOUSLY means more than just a casual, dismissive "Yeah, I believe in God, but..." No, Washington is calling on the American people to embrace a deep, meaningful, contemplative relationship with God.

3. The United States has been blessed by God - and will continue to receive God's blessings, based upon their continued homage, adoration, and obedience.


****

I stand by that, though I will concede that Washington's references to God were gender-neutral. In fact, in at least one case, he referred to Providence as "she," I believe. So...I accept your clarification on that.

My main point is that GW didn't see faith and Providence as an irrelevant or peripheral abstraction. He firmly believed that our nation was under sovereign, providential authority - and that we should obey and adore that authority.