In his First Inaugural Address, President George Washington offered his "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."
In virtually the same breath, Washington declared: "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."
Debates over the role of religion in America's founding often turn on the extremes, with some saying that the Founding Fathers were mostly "Deists" or "free thinkers" (code for non-believers) and others insisting that all the Founders were Bible-thumping, evangelical Christians!
The debate has become so contentious (and, at times, so comical) that obvious truths are overlooked in the battle over particulars. For example, Washington dedicates a large portion of his First Inaugural to his faith in God and his call on Americans to embrace God. Yet, many today would rather argue over whether he said "so help me God" after taking the oath of office on the Bible! This overlooks the fact that a huge chunk of Washington's speech eloquently and emphatically expressed his request for God's help!
It becomes very difficult to establish consensus in such a climate. Difficult, but not impossible. Because regardless of where one stands on the specific faith of the Founding Fathers or the role religion should play in society today, there is one consistent and unmistakable theme in American history: From the colonial period through today, the people of the United States have embraced belief in God and expressed their dependence on Him.
**Side Note: While it may offend some (particularly those given to "political correctness"), I will use the male pronoun to refer to God, since that is how God is revealed and described in the Judeo-Christian tradition.**
Challenging the reality of this theme is an exercise in futility. While a few Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, these schools of thought have never dominated nor defined the United States. They are, to put it mildly, in the minority. Most Americans believe in God and (according to several polls) prefer that their elected leaders do so as well.
At this point in the discussion, those frustrated by these realities point to the First Amendment's establishment clause or the constitutional prohibition against religious tests. This misses the point. It's true that the U.S. Constitution bars religious tests for elected officials (a provision initially applied only to the federal government and later extended to the states as well). It's also true that the U.S. Constitution forbids an "establishment" of religion.
This, however, says nothing about the desires of the American public. If the American people desire a war veteran for a President, that is their perogative. If they want only a President who is left-handed, that is also their right. An individual voter has the unqualified right to vote for whomever he or she pleases, based on whatever criteria he or she sets. That's the heart of democracy. Lose that, and you're in serious trouble!
It just so happens that a majority of American voters want their President to possess faith. They want a President who prays and who depends on a Power greater than himself or herself. Why? Because it cuts to the very fabric of America itself! The people of the United States, throughout their history, have held that kind of faith in and reliance on God.
Americans are gratified to read of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once said: "Do you think I could have fought my way through [World War II], ordered thousands of fellows to their deaths, if I couldn't have got down on my knees and talked to God?" They like to hear that, because most of them would agree with Eisenhower's next words: "I couldn't live a day of my life without God."
Most Americans want to believe that General Washington knelt in the snow at Valley Forge and asked God for wisdom. That's why the painting of him kneeling in prayer next to his horse is so popular. The idea that one of our nation's greatest (if not THE greatest) heroes humbled himself before a Higher Power is, well, downright inspiring! At least it is for a majority of Americans - those who haven't given themselves over to atheism, agnosticism, or cynicism.
Predictably, there are those who challenge the authenticity of the painting. And they usually do so on the particulars - i.e., the fact that Washington rarely if ever prayed on his knees and the questionable nature of the eyewitness testimony that stands behind the Valley Forge prayer tradition. Once again, they lose sight of the forest for the trees! This is like debating the authenticity of the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River, because he probably didn't stand in the boat! The real question is...Was George Washington a man of prayer? And if he was, is it not likely that he prayed at Valley Forge? Show me a respectable historian who would challenge Washington's belief in Providence or his recognition of the value of prayer! You can't! And, for that reason, that painting of Washington kneeling in prayer is as authentic as it needs to be, and it's staying on my wall!
Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with people analyzing paintings. I have no problem with discussing the particulars of American history, uncovering new insights, exposing myths and legends, and the like. That's all good. But I do have a problem with losing sight of the forest for the trees.
Not all Americans are "Christian" and not all the Founders were "Christian," but the tradition of our faith in God and dependence on Him is deeply American. It's a rich part of our nation's heritage and history, and if we ever lose that, we will lose something very precious.