Thursday, January 5, 2012

George Washington on civic affairs, revelation, and the need to imitate the "Divine Author of our blessed religion"

George Washington's pronouncements regarding civic religion were usually couched in general language.  He rarely referred to God in specific confessional terms, for example, but rather used generalized language that reflects often common 18th century Deistic terminology.  This use of generalized language was often paired with terminology designed to appeal to religious believers of a more orthodox Christian persuasion.  It is this pairing that more often than not leads, I think, to a good deal of the confusion regarding Washington's own religious beliefs and his view of faith in public life.

A good example of Washington's use of language in this regard can been seen in one of his more significant public pronouncements, the Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States regarding the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783.  In that letter, Washington seeks to reinforce the stability of the early American Republic as the Continentals returned home after winning independence.  In his letter, Washington makes two particularly important points regarding the role of religion in civil life.  The first is that for a variety of reasons, including divine "Revelation," human society is improving.  As Washington writes:
The free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and, above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have a meliorating influence on mankind, and increased the blessings of society.
Note that Washington, while listing many human accomplishments in this process of improvement, he attaches priority to "the pure and benign light of Revelation." It was divine Revelation, in Washington's statement, that was most to account for the progressive improvement in human society. Not a dry and cramped secularism or a humanism operating in a universe where God is simply an inattentive watchmaker, but Revelation proceeding from an active God who was communicating with human beings, moving them constantly forward toward a better future.  Washington argues that because of these many advantages -- both human and revelatory -- the happiness of the citizens of the United States as "a Nation" (and Washington uses both the singular  indefinite article and a capital "N") is for the taking.  If happiness and freedom do not result, "the fault with be entirely" our own. 

Second, Washington further reinforces the importance of God's action in human events by commending the state governors and their respective states to divine care.  "I now make it my earnest prayer," he writes, "that God would have you and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection[.]"  Washington then states that he hopes that God would move the citizens of the country to "cultivate" a host of proper civic virtues:  obedience to governmental authorities, fellow-feeling for each other -- both fellow citizens and particularly for the returning veterans of the Continental Army -- and, most interesting, to emulate those virtues "which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion[.]" (Italics in the original.)  After including a brief and common list of those virtues, Washington states that without "an humble imitation" of the example of the Divine Author, "we can never hope to be a happy nation."

What one sees in Washington's Circular Letter is language used that is non-confessionally specific, but which takes for granted certain key religious ideas:  1)  God is active in human affairs, moving human beings towards greater goodness and social solidarity;  2) because of the advantages they benefit from, the citizens of the United States are responsible for their freedom and happiness; and 3) human beings are called to imitate the attributes of God as He has revealed them.  

While Washington's Circular Letter is not a fully developed treatise in civic theology, it does manifest the key points of Washington's own views about the role of religion in human society. And Washington's vision in that regard was one that viewed religion as a positive force in human life and civic affairs.  It is not, to say the least, a vision of civic life that is hostile to religious faith.  While couched in language that is not expressly orthodox, it is couched in language that is certainly amenable to orthodox interpretation.  Far from religion ruining everything, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens, to the Washington writing the Circular Letter, religious faith stands as the well-spring for civic virtue and human happiness.

[Cross-posted at my own blog, Libertas et Memoria.]

17 comments:

Jason Pappas said...

Mark, you left out the passage leading into that quote. It raises several questions.

"The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, ..."

What was the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition? This seems in contrast to the pure and benign light of Revelation. The tense structure seems to place Ignorance and Superstition in the past while putting the light of Revelation in the present. Is there significance to that?

Mark in Spokane said...

Nothing that undermines Washington's main point -- which is that under the light of Revelation, human society was improving. The previous era of gloominess and superstition was past not in spite of religion, but because of it.

One interesting thing that is raised by the point that you made, and one that will fit nicely with my next post about Thomas Jefferson, is the notion of progress among the Founders. Washington obviously believed that human society was improving over time. Jefferson, as my next post will show, did as well. For Washington, the prime driver of that improvement, as the Circular Letter demonstrates, was Revelation. While other factors were present, for Washington that was the key.

Thanks for the comment.

Jason Pappas said...

Still, Mark, I find it interesting that he's using revelation in the present tense. Most Christians and all Muslims that I know use it in the past tense. Revelations were made to the prophets. For Christians they are summarized in the Bible. Some Christians (that I’ve met online) hold that revelations come everyday--that you have a personal relationship with God.

Washington’s statement isn’t clear to me but it appears that he believes in active continuous revelations.

This is analogous to the duel definition of deism that we’re discussing in the other threat. One definition is a clock-maker to starts everything going and disappears. The other is a providential active God that continues to push things along and is ever present.

Let me propose a parallel distinction for sake of analysis. The theory of revelation that’s most common is the one that holds revelation is through the prophets (and Jesus) that’s been received and recorded in the past--here God stops talking. Another theory of revelation is that God is always talking to us--all of us--and giving us instruction.

The “God is now quiet” theory directs us to the dogma of the holy books and church. The “God is now speaking” theory tells us that we hear new guidance bringing us forward with enlightenment. GW's letter hints at the second.

I don’t know enough about GW's religion. That he has a spirituality is undeniable. However, what’s his theory of revelation?

Mark in Spokane said...

There is an ambiguity in Washington's language, but I don't think it is necessarily unorthodox. Catholicism, for example, speaks of Revelation in the present tense all the time. If one reads the Second Vatican Council's decree on the Bible, the term is used in the present tense there. For most orthodox Christians, the Bible's Revelation occurred at discrete points in time (with the writing of each book), but God continues to speak to people through those books today. Hence, the Bible is Revealed, but at the same time it is Revelation.

I'm not saying that that's what Washington necessarily meant -- only that his language is capable of bearing that meaning. Washington, as I noted, was using language that was capable of a range of meanings. He did so, I believe, to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. What becomes very clear as you read him, though, is that there was a positive civil theology in his writing -- the main points of which I noted in my post on the Circular Letter.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Mark,

This is a good post and I believe this Circular does well represent civil religion of late 18th Cen. America. It also well represents the political theory synthesis of the Founding era (Enlightenment, Bible, Common Law, Whig, Greco-Roman).

Re GW and Jesus I'd urge caution. This address, though singed by GW wasn't written by him, but one of his aides. And it represents one of two places where GW was ever recorded speaking of Jesus by name or example (the other the address to Del. Indians, also not written by GW but an aide).

Phil Johnson said...

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Helpful revelations on the character of George Washington and his approach toward religion in American society. He was a great man and especially fit for his role in time.
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Thanks to Mark and Jason.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

Continuing with the analysis of GW's invocation of "revelation," I've written before his use of "benign light" are Enlightenment qualifiers or adjectives. Reading thru the research we've done for years, we shouldn't conclude Enlightenment = atheism or absentee deism. There was a religious or Christian Enlightenment movement. The idea of a sober, rational, mild, tolerating, benign and enlightened religion was part of this.

Phil Johnson said...

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Maybe my question is appropriate?
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During the nineteenth century, thinkers opened their suspicions regarding religion and so much so that atheism came to be allowed as a public subject of inquiry.
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But, during the eighteenth century, such thinking would have been completely rejected as worthy of any public considerations.
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It seems to me that George Washington created his pronouncements (what he put his signature to) in such ways to satisfy the norms of society. Is there any evidence that to have done otherwise would have destroyed his career?

Mark in Spokane said...

Jon,

Thanks for the comments and the clarification about the composition of the letter. You are absolutely right that Washington often used aides in composing his major statements -- that was something he did all through his career. And while some of the language he used in his statements undoubtedly comes from aides, at the same time the statements did reflect his own views and positions.

Mark in Spokane said...

That said, you are absolutely correct, Jon, that Washington's works contain only sparing references to Jesus. Washington's approach to religious language was usually much more generalized and couched in the kind of terminology that was common in Enlightenment references to the Deity. Even the reference in the Circular Letter that I discussed wasn't to Jesus by name, but rather by function -- the "Divine Author of our religion."

Phil Johnson said...

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Are you going to ignore my question, Mark?
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Mark in Spokane said...

Sorry, Phil I didn't mean to ignore you. I don't have to your question right now, though.

Ray Soller said...

Mark, I don't know why you choose to differentiate Washington from those who followed a "dry and cramped secularism or a humanism operating in a universe where God is simply an inattentive watchmaker," because that comparison presents somthing of a false dichotomy.

I receieved a reply from Professor Waligore for the question as to "when Deism became synonymous with the absent watchmaker."

Here's part of his his reply: "About your question, I spend most of my time now on the English deists, and I am discovering a decent number of them that seem unknown to other scholars. I have never read the work of a single deist in the Enlightenment period who said God was absentee or uninvolved. So I would definitely say before 1800 deism is not for this absentee [watchmaker] God."

Mark in Spokane said...

Ray,

Thanks for your comment. I wasn't referring to any 18th century Deists, I was thinking more of modern day Deists. As your comment helps to note, there is a vast difference between the two camps.

Mark in Spokane said...

For me, the great example of 18th century American Deism is Ben Franklin. And Franlkin certainly did not believe that God was merely a watchmaker. Franklin consistently affirmed that God intervened in human affairs, was worthy of worship, that God should be worshipped and prayed to, and that God would judge each person in the afterlife.

Anonymous said...

If you think in depth, I think that most men that looked up to George Washington followed what he said to do and probably gave themselves time to take a look at the bible and went from there.. and if you notice very clearly, God says that come prior to the "big day" there is gonna be people imitating me , saying that they are god but they really not. Have you notice mmost of the big songs are bout artist saying there god and we as very interesting individuals subconsiously do what they say?

bpabbott said...

Anon, you refer to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 ?