Friday, February 12, 2010

President Washington's First Official Act

...he thanked God for the Founding
and that's just a fact, in his own words
by Tom Van Dyke

Rev. Gary Kowalski ["Revolutionary Spirits"] writes in his post How Christian Were the Founders? below:

They simply believed that faith should be exercised in the private sphere rather than assert its authority through law or tax-funded initiatives.

This is somewhat true, although James Madison lost the battle against publicly-funded chaplains to the US Congress, which voted otherwise. A tradition that continues to this day, and one Madison didn't try to overturn even when he eventually became president.

And of course, religion was left to the states, and many states had religious tests for office and some still have them on the books even today; some even had "official" churches, and the ratification of the Constitution changed none of that.

But most troubling about Gary's riff is this phrase:

that faith should be exercised in the private sphere

What does Rev. Kowalski mean by "faith?" I have no idea.

But "faith"---to me---is the question about whether God even exists, or if He does, whether He guides our lives with an active hand. Maybe He created us, but left us to our own devices, since He had better things to do.

And what does Gary mean by "private sphere?"

Because George Washington, who was no Holy Roller, and indeed he was questionably even "Christian," said in his first inaugural address:

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.

And Washington felt that he was speaking not just for himself, but for the new American nation:

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.

And Washington continues, not only with the success of the American Revolution, but in crediting the Almighty with a peaceful agreement among men how to govern themselves and each other---the Constitution:

"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."

And, yeah, if you noticed at the end there, Washington speaks hopefully of "an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage."

So I must humbly submit that's a prayer for America's future. Humble people pray that way. George Washington, even when he felt the presence of The Almighty, as he especially did here on the occasion of being inaugurated as America's first president, remained a humble man.

And so, Gary---Rev. Kowalski---I must strongly disagree that the "Founders" thought religion---at least "the question" of God---was a private matter. Like George Washington,

"These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed."


Brad Hart said...

But Tom, you are forgetting that Washington never said "So Help Me God"...or had his pinky fingers crossed when he did...or something like that...yadda, yadda, yadda...rabble, rabble, rabble.


This is spot on. I will vehemently oppose anyone who is silly enough to claim Washington as a devout Christian but I will more passionately oppose anyone who thinks Washington wasn't religious...or that he thought "faith" was a bad thing for America to recognize in the halls of government.

As you make clear here, the secularist case is even more ridiculous than that of the devout least in the case of G.W.

jimmiraybob said...

that faith should be exercised in the private sphere

It's also instructive to look at the meaning of the term "exercised." the following are some definitions pulled somewhat randomly from on-line dictionaries are conform to the sense of "exercised" that I see being used in the above.

exercise - To put into play or operation; employ: Proceed, but exercise caution.
exercise - To bring to bear; exert:
exercise - exert: put to use; "exert one's power or influence"
exercise - practice: carry out or practice; as of jobs and professions; "practice law"

Given this sense of the word exercise, I think that the Rev is right. Whereas Washington respected religion, and recognized it as a force to cultivate the virtue and morality necessary to sustain the Republic, I don't see any evidence that he felt that government should be used to put religion into play or to aid in its practice (or hinder either).

Brian Tubbs said...

Good article, Tom! Well put!

Andrew said...

If you go back an read the early prayers and writers of the founders it is clear what they believed. Thanks for posting! Check out my site and please consider adding it to your blogroll. I have been posting online bible studies since last summer and just recently started blogging about current events, and america's Godly heritage, among other things.

what is the bible?

Brian Tubbs said...


As a Christian, I'm in agreement with much of the content at your blog, but I had to cringe at some of your assertions in the article "Our Godly Heritage," namely that "we were founded as a Christian nation, by Christian men, with Christian principles."

Had you said "were were founded...with Christian principles," I wouldn't take exception to that. But you went a little far.

There were quite a few Founders who simply can't be described as "Christian" and it's much too simplistic to say that our nation was founded as a "Christian nation." Biblically speaking, there is no such thing, by the way. A nation-state can't be "Christian." Only an individual can be a Christian.

I notice you cite David Barton a lot. I'd encourage you to read through our blog here. You'll find a lot of material about Mr. Barton. :-)

Anyway...just giving you a heads up that you're wading into a forum here that's populated by some pretty studied people from various perspectives.

I hope you'll stick around, read through some of the past articles, and join in the discussion.

Welcome to the party! :-)

Gary Kowalski said...

Tom, thanks for the reminder of the First Inaugural where Washington called upon "that Almighty Being who rules the universe." George Washington typically avoided using the word "God," preferring nature-based circumlocutions like "Providence" and other phrases that had Masonic rather than specifically Christian overtones. That's one measure of how far our First President had traveled from orthodox Christianity.

Washington of course saw organized religion as a potentially positive force within the new nation. But he himself was careful to visit churches of every denomination and assure Jews of their full citizenship rights within the republic. When I said that the founders intended religion to be exercised within the "private sphere," I added that this meant privately-held creeds were not to be advanced through law or by tax-based initiatives, not implying that men like Washington could not employ a religious vocabulary when it suited their purposes. Of course, he could and did use religious language. But he was always careful to choose his words, striving to be inclusive rather than inclusive in his supplications to men's better angels.

King of Ireland said...

"I added that this meant privately-held creeds were not to be advanced through law or by tax-based initiatives"

This was the atttitude of some but not of others since religion was left to the states both lines of thought prevailed depending on where one was at.

KB said...

Thanks Brian, and yes I realize that I may have gotten a little passionate with my writings! The words I used were overly simplistic, you are right about that. I think that when we find someone who overcompensates by saying that "The founding fathers didn't believe in God!", that I, for one, tend to overcompensate the other way, hoping to eventually fall somewhere in the middle. Thank you for the information though! I am still a young man, and I still have a great deal to learn I know. So humbly I will continue reading, writing, and thinking! God Bless!