A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the history, particularly religious, of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed.
Monday, June 30, 2008
"So Help Me God" as a forced "Religious Test"
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Yet, despite this VERY SPECIFIC oath of office, why is it that the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, who are swearing in our newly elected presidents, are essentially obligating them to say "So help me God"? Don't believe me? Just check out a few recent presidential inaugurations and listen very carefully as the Chief Justice inserts "So help me God" as part of the oath, even though, as you can see above, it is not part of the Constitution. Is this a violation of Article VI, Section III of the Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States"?
Here are the videos:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
Dwight D. Eisenhower:
John F. Kennedy:
Anyway, I think the point is obvious. Every president since television and radio recording was possible has been REQUIRED to say "So help me God" as a part of their oath of office, even though the Constitution does not require it. Am I missing something? Was their a change made in the Constitution itself at some point? Again, I personally don't really care what these presidents say in their oath. As far as I am concerned it's all a bunch of pomp and circumstance. But for some, this is a big deal and I can see why. Ray is right to point out that a RELIGIOUS TEST is being required during the oath of office.
Stephen Carter on the Presidential Oath
The President of the United States of America is certainly free to add "So help me God" to his oath of office, but as has been explained by Stephen Carter on the Paula Gordon Show broadcast on October 31, 2000, The Price of Power:
What about "one nation, under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? Say it if you believe it, refrain if not, you pick, advises Mr. Carter. But it's very different and a serious problem when the Chief Justice of the United States adds '...so help me God' to the Presidential oath. That's not optional and turns the oath into a religious test, prohibited by the Constitution. George Washington said it [raySoller - of course, we don't know that], but the phrase should not be there.
Stephen Carter Professor of Law, Yale University, and an author. A former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Carter is among the nation's leading experts on constitutional law. Mr. Carter confronts what he views as challenges to America's democracy in his several books, including The Culture of Disbelief, Civility, Integrity and God's Name in Vain.
In Defense of "So Help me God"
In recent tradition, the words "so help me God" have been added to the oath taken by the incoming President of the United States, with many assuming that this addition goes back to the inauguration of George Washington. Whether this is true has been challenged by secularists - fellow American Creation contributor Ray Soller being one of the leaders in this fight.
The presidential oath according to the United States Constitution reads as follows:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
The Most Important Question
If a President were required to utter words outside of the constitutionally prescribed oath - words including "so help me God" - then I would agree with Mr. Soller and others that the Constitution has been transgressed.
However, if a President - by his own choice - adds "so help me God" to the oath, he (and, in the future, she) is well within his rights to do so. No secularist has the right to tell an incoming President that he can't ask for God's help in adhering to the oath of office.
To tell an incoming President that he can't add "so help me God" to the oath is a clear infringement of that President's freedom of speech. The same applies, by the way, if a President were to say "so help me, Allah" or "so help me, America" or "so help me, Harvey" (remember the Jimmy Stewart movie?).
A President has the right to add whatever words he wishes to the end of the oath. Why? Because the oath has already been administered.
Did George Washington say "So Help me God"?
There is no way to scentifically prove whether Washington added "so help me God" to his inaugural oath, because there's no way any of us can directly observe Washington's inauguration. Until time travel is invented, we're out of luck! Scientific proof is, after all, based on observation.
Can we historically prove it? Mr. Soller and others have done a great job in showing that no contemporaneous account exists to prove that Washington added "so help me God" to the oath, other than that of then six-year old Washington Irving. (I personally think they are wrong to so cavalierly dismiss Irving's credibility, but I'll set that aside for now).
However, one of the most disturbing trends in our postmodern, media-saturated society is that we have frankly become much too cynical. We call everything into question that doesn't fit with our postmodern worldview and for which we don't have multiple attestation -- attestation, that is, from sources that we're comfortable with.
Now, I'm all for prudence and healty skepticism. But we've gone to ridiculous extremes in recent years, as Australian scholar Keith Windschuttle so articulately points out in The Killing of History.
If we need contemporaneous, on-the-spot validation for everything, then we've just undermined virtually all that we know from ancient, medieval, and early modern history. For instance, remember that the earliest biography of Alexander the Great was written 400 years after the man's death!
The truth is that we have a claim that Washington added "so help me God" to the oath. Yes, the claim emerged 60 years later - but the claim comes from someone who was present at the event.
Is the claim consistent with what President Washington did at the inauguration? The answer is yes. Washington took the oath on the Bible. That is not disputed, and (I would add) not required under the Constitution. What's more, Washington very explicitly called on the nation to pray during his inaugural address.
Here's what Washington said of God, prayer, and the nation in his First Inaugural:
"...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..."
I find it interesting that secularists so often challenge things like whether Washington was an "orthodox" Christian or whether he actually added "so help me God" to the oath. These serve to distract from some rather clear FACTS about George Washington, namely that he:
- Devoutly believed in God
- Believed in prayer
- Called on the nation to pray and give homage to God
- Considered the United States "bound to acknowledge and adore" God
This just scratches the surface, but these can hardly be considered the sentiments of a secularist or a Deist.
So WHAT if you prove somehow (and, by the way, you can't) that Washington didn't say "so help me God" at the end of the presidential oath. You've only proven a technicality.
The record is clear. George Washington believed in God and was encouraging all Americans to likewise believe in and submit to God. Whether the secularists today are comfortable with this is immaterial.
What's more, the tradition of adding "so help me God" to the presidential oath will likely continue. Not so much because George Washington did it. Even if Mr. Soller and others are successful in "proving" that Washington didn't say it, the tradition will likely continue. Why? Because virtually all of our Presidents have believed in God. And it's not likely that the American people will elect an atheist to the highest office of the land anytime soon.
Addendum: Allow me to add (in light of some of the comments) that I agree enough doubt has been raised by those questioning the "so help me God" tradition that historians and the US government should acknowledge the dispute over when the "so help me God" tradition began.
I will further accept that the Chief Justice (or whichever court official administering the oath) should stick to the constitutionally prescribed oath. The only exception to this would be IF the incoming President expresses his or her plans to add "so help me God" (or "so help me Allah" or whatever) to the oath. In that event, I have no problem with the Chief Justice accommodating the incoming President. The only problem would be if the incoming President chose to remove portions from the oath.
All that having been said, at this point, "so help me God" has become a part of the tradition, and a majority of the American people expect and are comfortable with the President saying those words. It's unlikely that the American people will elect an atheist to the presidency anytime soon.
So help me, "G W" ---
The Library of Congress, they just don't get it!
The two men even disagreed as to whether George Washington added the phrase "so help me God" to the oath of office when sworn in.After the Jay Sekulow and Michael Newdow debate, sideline spectators have been quoting the Library of Congress as if it were the final authority on this issue. Somehow, it seemed like if someone cited the Library of Congress it was just like quoting scripture from the Bible. However, anyone, who at that time would ask the Library of Congress as to what was their primary source for claiming that George Washington had added "So help me God" to his oath, would invariably meet up with either Dr. Marvin Kranz, or Gerry Gawalt. (Marvin Kranz was already on record as saying that Washington had added a religious codicil to his oath - see Jan 20, 2005, CBS article, The Evolution Of The Inauguration by Bill Plante).
"It turns out, that ... at least in my research, nobody has been able to verify that George Washington said, 'so help me God,'" Newdow said. "I'm already up to James Monroe, and nobody has ever been able to say that any of those presidents have ever said, 'so help me God.'"
Sekulow countered: "I've got some history books I'll show you that will help."
According to the Library of Congress Sekulow was right. The library's website says that Washington added the phrase "so help me God," and other presidents -- including Bush -- have done so, too.
As a result of a communication I had with Michael Newdow, I started sending queries to the Library of Congress. In early November 2005 I received my first response from the LOC Digital Reference Team. It explained:
Librarian 1: We apologize for not updating you on the status of your question. We have heard back from the staff in charge of the "'I Do Solemnly Swear . . .': Presidential Inaugurations" collection. They contacted Gerry Gawalt, a specialist in the Library's Manuscript Division, about your question. After speaking with him, they forwarded us the following response:Later, as a result of contacting Gawalt, he told me that his information had been passed down from Dr. Marvin Kranz, who had recently retired.
"[Gerry Gawalt says] that Douglas S. Freeman, Washington's preeminent biographer, cites a Tobis [sp. Tobias] Lear letter of May 3, 1789, to George A. Washington as evidence that Washington added "So Help Me God." While we don't have that letter, Gerry is willing to accept Freeman's work."
If you would like to follow up on this this response, you can contact the Manuscript Division directly, addressing your message to Gerry Gawalt, using the web form at: Ask a Librarian.
I was soon able to meet up with Freeman's Oath - reference. When actually reading the document, as anyone can see, there's no reference to Washington adding a religious codicil to his oath. I then notified Gerry Gawalt that Freeman's cited reference to the Lear letter did not support LOC's claim that Washington had established a tradition by saying "So help me God."
As a result of this new information, some changes have taken place at the Library of Congress as illustrated by an e-mail exchange between Miss Elementary History Teacher and the Library of Congress. See History Is Elementary blog, May 18, 2006, Myth busting 'So help me God'
My email [from Elementary History Teacher] to the Library of Congress reads as follows:
In contrast, here's a more candid instance where LOC shows some recognition that the notion of having Washington add "so help me God" to his "oath is not supported by any eyewitness accounts." It shows up in a Sept/Oct 2006 e-mail exchange between Barbara Clark Smith (Curator, Politics and Reform, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution), and Jurretta Heckscher (Research Specialist, Digital Reference Team, The Library of Congress). The background story as to just how these parties came in possession of the material they cited is the subject of a future blog.
Our students have been researching various presidents over the last few days. We have found several different Internet sites regarding the inauguration of George Washington and the words "so help me God". Many people have quoted the Library of Congress as their source for stating that GW did add those words to the end of his oath of office. What is the definitive answer to this question? We have
found other Internet postings and sites that report there are no primary sources
that state GW stated "so help me God". Thanks for your help.
Librarian Number 3 of the American Memory Team responded:
I am afraid there is no definitive answer to that question. Some testify that he did, others are silent.
As one student said, “Well, that was a lot of help!”
No matter, even with this new information in hands of personnel at the Library of Congress, it hasn't made a noticeable difference. Whatever the facts, the Library of Congress continues to display the same information at their website, Inaugurals of Presidents of the United States: Some Precedents and Notable Events.
So help me, "G W" --- The Library of Congress, they just don't get it!
Sunday, June 29, 2008
After my last post on Peter Marshall, coauthor of "The Light and the Glory," John Fea informs me of his article on the 30th anniversary of the book. Check it out. It's a great article and offers a cautionary note to Christians historians. Here is a taste:
For example, Marshall and Manuel interpret the fog that rose in the East River on the morning of August 30, 1776, as God’s direct intervention to aid George Washington’s midnight retreat from the British assault on the Continental Army’s position on Brooklyn Heights. They describe the fog’s rising as “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.” They believe this because Washington, members of his staff, and many Continental soldiers described this event in terms of God’s special protection of the army.
Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether an English Christian would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?
Land of Confusion: The Delusions and Realities of New World Colonization
Any person with even an elementary understanding of history is more than capable of seeing through the sarcasm of this fairytale. To suggest that such a story provides a just and accurate account would invoke laughter and scorn from most. Despite this knowledge, there are still many who have succumbed to a fairytale of their own. They maintain that the New World was a land of freedom, opportunity, and wealth for European immigrants, who were blessed by the watchful hand of Providence. While their assertion is partially true, its bias is obvious. Such a perspective fails to recognize what the New World meant to the thousands of Africans, who instead of freedom, found themselves in chains in the New World. It also negates the opinions of millions of Natives, who had called this “New World” home for centuries. Such a simple perspective also denies us the opportunity of understanding the numerous nations, cultures, religions, social classes and motivations of Europe, which all contributed to American colonization. In essence, the colonization of America was not a simple affair, but a complex series of events that changed the world forever.
For years, the history of American colonization has been wrapped up in a counterfeit blanket of ignorance. This blanket has provided a warped sense of warmth and comfort, which has given many a blissful but misleading understanding of the past. Though the established myths of popular culture provide an uplifting account of American colonization, they neglect essential truths that help piece the puzzle together. For example, to suggest that American colonization was a loving endeavor, brought to pass by God himself, is hard to prove conclusively when we take into account the actual motivations for colonization. From the English perspective, the elder Richard Hakluyt made it clear that the main motivations for colonization were, "To trafficke" and "To conquer." Not exactly a well-balanced Christian agenda.
Despite the primary agenda of securing worldly wealth, there is no doubt that the establishment of Christianity was a strong motivation for American colonization. From the very beginning, many explorers were driven by religious convictions, which propelled them into the unknown. Alan Taylor, an early colonial historian and author of the book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, claims that Columbus desired to convert those he encountered to Christianity and, "to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth" (33). The Franciscan Friars of Spain were also motivated to migrate to America, in an effort to convert the Pueblo Indians. Upon their arrival, the Friars committed themselves to eradicating old Indian traditions. They raided homes, confiscated ceremonial emblems, destroyed idols, and defiled native gods (Taylor, 89). The Friars also sought to undermine the family traditions of the Pueblo Indians, by indoctrinating their youth, restricting their sexual activities, and emasculating the men (Taylor, 92-93). A strange agenda for a group of self-proclaimed pious Christians.
With the expansion of the Spanish into the New World, the Protestant nation of England felt additional pressure to secure their own colonies and preach their own brand of religion to the "savages" of America. To allow the Catholics of Spain total access to the New World was fundamentally unacceptable. As historian Karen Kupperman points out in her book, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony:
“We should not underestimate the emotional force of this confrontation between Christians, which has been compared to the Cold War of the twentieth century. Each side believed the other was absolved by its religion of all normal moral and ethical behavior in dealing with the enemy, and capable of the most heinous plots”To the English, there was nothing worse than confronting the possibility of a New World ruled under the banner of the Pope.
While there is no doubt that religion played a vital role in American colonization, it was not the exclusive motivation for settlement in the New World. The drive to establish trade with the Indians, and to conquer new lands, was just as significant as the drive to spread Christianity. Contrary to popular opinion, European colonization was not an explosive and daring operation. Instead of seeking to further humanity’s knowledge of the unknown world, many explorers hoped to find lands and cultures that could be exploited for profit. As Alan Taylor states, "the adventurers did not pursue exploration for pure love of geographic knowledge…They proceeded incrementally…seeking the sources of known commodities" (American Colonies, 29). Instead of being a benevolent voyage to chart the unknown, most European exploration was empowered to exploit opportunity for immediate profits.
The conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes is a prime example of these profit-hungry intentions, which many explorers exhibited. Like many other conquistadores, Cortes came from the Spanish gentry. To turn a profit, men like Cortes depended on their ability to plunder, conquer, and enforce their will on others. Alan Taylor sums up the life of a conquistador perfectly when he writes, “Greed was the prerequisite for pursuing the hard life of a conquistador” (American Colonies, 58). Upon discovering the riches of the Aztecs, Cortes held to the Spanish law of conquest, which demanded that all Indians were required to submit to Spanish rule, or receive the punishments of a “just war.” By gaining the allegiance of neighboring tribes, who detested the Aztecs, Cotes was able to conquer a literal treasure of wealth for himself and his nation.
The conquests of the Spanish in the New World provided an incredible amount of wealth for the homeland. Between 1500 and 1650, Spanish settlers shipped home 181 tons of gold, and 16,000 tons of silver (American Colonies, 63). With such a bountiful supply of riches, the Spanish government moved to monopolize on the market. They made it illegal for all foreigners to trade directly with the colonies, which forced them do deal directly with Spain. Such a policy protected Spain from losing this very lucrative market.
Spain was not the only European nation to seek economic gain in the New World. England quickly caught the fever of colonization, believing that the New World was an undiscovered Utopia, overflowing with untapped potential. In their planning, Europeans perceived the New World to be a bountiful paradise, which “bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor” (Karen Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 17). This Eden-like New World must have appealed to the hopes and imaginations of many English, especially considering all the poverty, disease and warfare that had plagued Europe over the past two centuries. There is little doubt that such hopes and dreams grew into unrealistic fantasies for many who longed for a better world. Speaking from his perspective, nevertheless lacking a full understanding of global weather patterns, the elder Richard Hakluyt made the following assumption of what settlers could expect in the new world:
"This land that we purpose to direct our course to, lying in part in the 40 degree of latitude, being in like heat as Lisbone in Portugall doth, and in the more Southerly part as the most Southerly coast of Spaine doth, may by our diligence yeeld unto us besides Wines and Oiles and Sugars, Orenges, Limons, Figs, Resings, Almonds, Rice…"Returning from his recent explorations to the New World, Sir Richard Grenville stated that “we have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 34-35). With such a Utopia awaiting them, Englishmen began gathering and making preparations for a journey that they believed would ultimately make England even mightier than it already was. All of these men, “had an image of England’s future greatness and the exhilarating feeling that they were the people who would make it come true” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 30). From the English perspective, there was a clear expectation of a bountiful, fertile, and relatively easy to maintain oasis that awaited them, and that England would become even greater because of it.
Needless to say, these religious and economic motivations for the colonization of the "New World" primarily resulted in utter failure. Converting the "savages" proved to be more difficult than previously thought, since, contrary to European beliefs, the Native Americans cared very little for Christian theology. On the economic front, colonization proved even more difficult. Instead of discovering and settling in a Garden of Eden-like frontier, European settlers were met with Indian attack, harsh weather, terrible crop yields, and disease. For the English, their first experiment at Roanoke met with complete failure, as was almost the case with Jamestown. Even Plymouth suffered terrible losses and afflictions.
What is interesting about these preconceived European beliefs as to what awaited them across the Atlantic is their complete faith and surety that God would grant them a safe and uneventful trek into an unknown land. Upon their arrival, these same Europeans quickly came to the realization that their faith was not only lacking, but their arrogant presumption that God would grant them immediate success was unlikely to happen. This tug-o-war between the religious presumptions of the Europeans and the reality they experienced helps to explain why the early years of American settlement were a violent, hostile, intolerant and unpredictable environment.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Here at American Creation we are looking for more balanced perspective. We do a lot of David Barton/"Christian America" bashing here and the religious conservative side sometime receives short shrift. Tom Van Dyke, of the Newswalk and who has written for the American Spectator, is one of my most perceptive commenters at Positive Liberty. Like me he disagrees with the Christian America thesis; but he often helps me put things into more balanced perspective. I'd describe his politics as being informed by neo-Thomism, operating in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. As he notes in the following comment, sometimes the secular side makes goofs that are as bad as David Barton's, but they are not as often criticized for it, at least not by the "respectable" media and academy:
In defense of Barton, who after all was a high school teacher with no background in history when he started his inquiry, the false quotes attributed to various Founders were generated in the hagiographic 19th century. He did not personally fabricate them.
After Barton rediscovered them, they spread like wildfire, in no small part due to the internet. It’s to his credit that he’s gone back with a more exacting scalpel.
Moreover, as I poke through the internet, I find that many of the criticisms of Barton’s main thesis are as shoddy as his own original flawed work. To wit:
In fact, Steve Weissman in his Truthout article America’s Religious Right - Saints or Subversives? said that “Barton systematically fails to see that many, if not most, of the founders were men of the 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment, who consciously rejected any literal interpretation of the Bible. To the degree they had religious faith, and many did, they believed in a God who - like a cosmic watchmaker - created the world and its natural laws, and then played no further part.”
This is pure nonsense, and just the sort of thing that Barton was reacting to, the contemporary propaganda that the US was founded in a secular vacuum.
Thomas Jefferson himself—the least religiously orthodox of all the Founders—believed that America would be punished by a just, intervening God for slavery:
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!” —Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
You don’t have to go far to dig this out. Some of these words appear on the Jefferson Memorial itself.
The irony of all this is that some people swallow stuff like Weissman’s nonsense as easily as Barton’s supporters swallowed his, yet think of themselves as Enlightened and educated, unlike those Christian fools.
It is to laugh. Truth is always more complicated than that.
Ray Soller has shared with us much of his meticulous research casting doubt on the notion that George Washington added "So Help Me God" to his oath of office. Check out Michael Newdow's musical telling of the story. It reminds me of the "School House Rock" specials I saw, as a member of Generation X, when watching cartoons growing up.
Forrest Church: So help me God
& The First Great Battle
I hope Rev. Forrest Church, author of the forthcoming So Help Me God: Presidential Faith and Religious Politics in the Early Republic ... , will find a new title to his book, because none of the Founding Fathers, who were elected President, are known to have used the words, "So help me God," when they were inaugurated.When Forrest Church's book was finally published, the title did change, but the So-help-me-God part stayed the same, and, for good measure, I found out that Church included an Appendix in his book with the subtitle Did George Washington say "So help me God"? Needless to say, given the title of his book, Church defends the tradition where Washington is thought of having added a "sacred codicil" to his presidential oath.
I ordered the book, read the book, listened to several promotional interviews, and engaged Forrest Church in a discussion regarding what actually took place during Washington's first inauguration, which the author considers to be something of a minor skirmish in The First Great Battle Over Church and State. (You can find a published edition of Church's book here.) Several interesting promotional interviews are available. My selection for the best one was broadcast on The Tavis Smiley Show. Here's a snippet:
Tavis: . . . Tell me about this title, "So Help Me, God." We hear that phrase all the time. Why it as the title of the text?
Church: Well, in the oath of office, the inaugural oath of office that's set in the Constitution, it's a purely secular oath. And when George Washington was inaugurated the first time, when he got done with the oath as it was presented to him, he added the words "so help me, God."
Church: Impromptu, although I think he was scripted by his managers at that point. But that has become part of the presidential - it's a mantra.
I recently happened across an online article, Defining the moving line between church and state, March 9, 2008, by Howard Barnes (a professor of history at Winston-Salem State University) in the Winston-Salem Journal that summarized Forrest Church's book. I sent Professor Barnes an e-mail because his article had repeated Church's position regarding Washington having said "So help me God." Howard Barnes told me that he appreciated the information I had sent, and wished he had this information when he had written his article. He went on to indicate that he "wouldn't mind" if I added my "correction" as a Comment. I jumped at the opportunity, only to find out that the comment window was limited to 3,000 characters. (For best results, the reader should, at least, skim through Church's Appendix before continuing.) After much cutting back here's the final result:
Posted by (raySoller) on June 6, 2008I just can't understand why Forrest Church chose to start the title of his book with an uncertainty. I couldn't understand why he did this when I first read the Christian Science Monitor article by Jeffrey MacDonald, and I can't do any better today.
In reviewing Forrest Church's book Professor Barnes writes:
According to several eyewitnesses (which the author affirms to be reliable), Washington not only ended his first inauguration ceremony with an oath on a borrowed Bible, but also added "so help me God" and bent down and reverently kissed the Bible.
Please note, two different issues are at stake. The first is whether Washington kissed the Bible, and the second is whether Washington added "So help me God."
There are four known firsthand accounts for Washington having kissed the Bible, but there are no known firsthand accounts saying that Washington added "So help me God" to his oath. Consequently, the first issue is not in doubt.
However, when it comes to the Appendix, where Forrest Church defends the notion that Washington added a sacred codicil to his oath, this is a very different matter. First off, Washington Irving was not the first person who claimed that Washington said "So help me God." This notion made its debut in 1854 when Rufus W. Griswold wrote his book, Republican Court. Many feel that Griswold used Washington Irving as his source, but that hardly matters, since Irving is not a reliable source.
According to Griswold, Washington Irving (age six) was not in a position to have reliably seen or heard what took place on the balcony some 200 feet away. Regardless, this didn't stop Griswold from saying that Washington had his "eyes closed" when he swore his oath, and it didn't stop Irving from having to refresh his "memory" by plagiarizing from the Memoirs of Eliza S. Morton Quincy.
Another problem relates to Church's misleading description of the oath that was approved for federal employees. There is no record that the God acknowledgements in the ad hoc House oath of April 6, 1789 were ever treated as part of the formal oath that was signed into law. In fact, from April 23rd, the day Washington arrived in New York, through to May 22nd, the date Congress submitted the bill to the President, there was no mention of any congressional disagreement when it came to the wording of the oath.
Of all the problems in Church's Appendix the most serious one stems from a bad case of mistaken identity. The "David Humphreys" of the Pennsylvania Mercury article has absolutely no connection to Washington's principal aide. He is actually Daniel Humphreys the newspaper editor, and the article is only a snippet selected from a very lengthy letter to the editor, Mr. Humphreys, that was serialized for nearly a month. Finally, on May 9th it is signed by Apocalypsophilos.
Forrest Church has acknowledged his error by saying, "I needn't have included that piece to begin with, and it doesn't change my sense that Washington is more likely than not to have said "So help me God" when he was inaugurated, though you will note that I nowhere claim that we can be certain about this." My response is, "Why does one prefix a title with an uncertainty?"
Friday, June 27, 2008
I wanted to comment on Jason Kuznicki's post on the Acton Institute's The Birth of Freedom whose screening we both saw. His post brings to mind George Willis Cooke's observations:
The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.
As Kuznicki correctly points out, Calvin was not a social contractarian, and his teachings on government were nothing like the democratic-republican ideas that America's Founders established:
According to Calvin, magistrates get their authority from God, and not — as the Levellers would have had it — by an agreement of the people. Hobbes sided with the agreement of the people, although he did attach, shall we say, some rather stringent terms to it. This — agreement versus divine institution — is the whole of the difference between social contract theory and what came before it.
Insofar as Calvin ever considered a state of nature, he viewed it not as full of danger (like Hobbes), nor as imperfect and needing improvement (like Locke), nor even as subject to natural transformation into a governed state (like Nozick). He viewed it as profane, because it was not sufficiently subject to God’s authority. He compared it to rats in straw. (And yet don’t rats enjoy living in straw? Why should we presume that this is such a bad thing for them? Doesn’t the metaphor deconstruct itself?)
Indeed, it’s hard to find something less like a Lockean social contract than the following passage from Calvin:...
Kuznicki then quotes from Calvin, an excerpt of which follows:
For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.
History gets interesting, though, when we recognize that some later "Calvinists" made arguments for "resisting the King," that somewhat paralleled what the American Founders would even later do in the American Revolution, and that a strong Calvinist component in the American population supported revolt against Great Britain. Still, Calvin was not a liberal democrat or social contractarian, but if anything represented "the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings," the exact opposite of the position America's Founders took.
Peter Lillback on Washington's Religion
Thursday, June 26, 2008
This post features commentary by Dr. Gregg Frazer on the Bible as an intellectual source of republicanism. I'd count the Bible/Christian principles as one source of many from which America's Founders believed man's reason could select the "rational" parts. But it was by no means the chief source. Pagan Greco-Roman principles, the interest in which had been recently rekindled during the Renaissance, received far more attention in the Federalist Papers. Given Christianity is compatible with a variety of different political systems, Christianity is arguably perfectly compatible with republicanism. But the principles of republicanism are for the most part a-biblical.
The fact that some parts of the Declaration and/or Constitution are not in conflict with verses in the Bible does not mean that the Bible was the source. This is especially important when — as in the case of the Declaration and the Constitution — the authors claim other sources, but do not claim the Bible as a source!
In a May 8, 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Jefferson identifies his sources for the Declaration’s principles. He names as sources: Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and (Algernon) Sidney — he does not mention the Bible. Then again, the terminology in the Declaration is not specifically Christian — or even biblical, with the exception of “Creator.” The term “providence” is never used of God in the Bible, nor are “nature’s God” or “Supreme Judge of the world” ever used in the Bible.
In the hundreds of pages comprising Madison’s notes on the constitutional convention (and those of the others who kept notes), there is no mention of biblical passages/verses in the debates/discussions on the various parts and principles of the Constitution. They mention Rome, Sparta, German confederacies, Montesquieu, and a number of other sources — but no Scripture verses.
In The Federalist Papers, there is no mention of biblical sources for any of the Constitution’s principles, either — one would think they could squeeze them in among the 85 essays if they were, indeed, the sources; especially since the audience was common men who were familiar with, and had respect for, the Bible. The word “God” is used twice — and one of those is a reference to the pagan gods of ancient Greece. “Almighty” is used twice and “providence” three times — but neither is ever used in connection with any constitutional principle or influence. The Bible is not mentioned.
As for freedom and liberty in the Bible, it is always SPIRITUAL freedom/liberty — as a look at the verses you’ve listed IN CONTEXT shows. That is NOT to say that political liberty is an anti-biblical concept — it’s just not a biblical one. Arguing that it is a “Calvinist” concept does not make it a biblical one, either. The “disciples” of Calvin did not write inspired revelation.
The key Founders (J. Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, & G. Morris) — those most responsible for the founding documents — were religious, but not Christians. They believed that religion was essential to produce the morality that a free society required, but that any religion would suffice. Their religious belief was a mixture of Protestantism, natural religion, and rationalism — with rationalism as the trump card and decisive factor. They retained elements of Christianity, but rejected the elements of Christianity (and of natural religion) that they considered irrational. However: of the ten CORE beliefs of Christianity (those shared by all of the major Protestant denominations of the day (and by the Catholics), they held to only one (or two, in some cases). Their belief system was, as I have termed it, theistic rationalism.
If the view of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin that any/all religions were valid paths to God and that any/all religions would suffice to produce the morality needed was a “minority opinion” among the Founders, why were they chosen to write the philosophical (you say religious) document (Declaration)?
An American Tradition, Universally Understood?
In his response, Lillback relied heavily on his observation that Washington was a Virginian, and as such he had likely repeated "ten or twelve oaths in his life," which concluded with the words, "So help me God." This is absolutely true, but only in the sense that all of these oaths took place during the colonial era when there was a congenital union between the English monarchy and the Anglican Church. What Lillback overlooks is that from the time starting with the American Revolution there does not appear to be a single documented instance where George Washington swore to an official oath in the service of our country that included a religious codicil.
We, also, need to consider that the Virginia Constitution of 1776 did not mandate a religious oath; and when it came to the to the Continental Congress, the Articles of Confederation did not even mention an oath as being necessary for its delegates. The United States Constitution does prescribe an oath for the president, but it omits any acknowledgement of a supreme being. This is also true for the legislated oath designated for all federal employees. When on June 1, 1789, President Washington signed An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administrating certain oaths into law, it simply stated, "I, A. B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States." Most importantly, the Constitution also states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States" (Article VI. Section, III).
The first reported instance of Washington swearing to an oath in the post-colonial era occurred as a result of the Continental Congress passing a bill on 3 February 1778 that required all Continental Army officers to sign a certificate to "acknowledge the UNITED STATES of AMERICA, to be Free and Independent and Sovereign States, ... ." Washington signed this certificate without appending "so help me God," even though the legislation passed by the Continental Congress had included an optional use of the words "So help me God" by placing those words outside of the delimiting quotation marks. As can be seen, Washington did not append "So help me God" to his military oath of May 12, 1778.
George Washington signed this oath of allegiance on May 12, 1778 while at Valley Forge. The same document was executed by such others as Von Steuben and Alexander Hamilton. They are on display in the National Archives, Washington, DC. (Courtesy National Archives.)
Pastor Lillback continued with a second point by saying, "In fact, it [saying 'So Help me God' as was done in Virginia] was the American tradition, universally understood, because the word oath implied that you were saying this before God. And the words 'So help me God,' were not adding God to it. God was there when you took an oath. It was saying, I need help to keep what I just promised."
The problem here is that Lillback can only see George Washington as agreeing with his "universal understanding" as to what oaths meant during the colonial era. What this means, of course, is that Lillback has to turn a blind eye to what happened at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In The Godless Constitution, Kramnick and Moore explain what happened this way:
While passionately debated in the new nation, the "no religious test" clause elicited surprisingly little discussion at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention itself. It was introduced by Charles Pinckney, the governor of South Carolina, on August 20, whereupon it was immediately referred to the Committee on Detail without any debate among the delegates. The committee presented its general report on August 30 and made no reference to Pinckney's proposal. Not to be ignored, Pinckney moved it again to the floor. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the committee chairman, held that the prohibition was unnecessary," the prevailing "liberality" being a sufficient security against such tests. Gouverneur Morris and General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney seconded Governor Pinckney's motion, however. It was then voted on and, according to the Maryland delegate Luther Martin, "adopted by a very great majority of the convention without much debate." No record of the exact vote, but Madison's personal notes of the convention report that North Carolina voted no and that Maryland was divided. According to Luther Martin, "there were some members so unfashionable [his italics] as to think that a belief in the existence of a Deity and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian county it would be at least decent to hold some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.
Well might these 'unfashionable' members be surprised at the position taken so easily by the majority at the Constitutional Convention, for eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests for public offices in 1787. Even in Rhode Island, once the most religiously pluralistic and liberal state, where small numbers of Catholics an Jews freely worshipped, only Protestants could vote or hold office. New Hampshire, New Jersey, both Carolinas, Vermont, and Georgia also required officials to be Protestants. Massachusetts and Maryland insisted on belief in the Christian religion as a qualification for office. Pennsylvania required its officials to be Protestants who believed in God and the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments; in Delaware all elected and appointed public officials were required to profess 'faith in God the father, and in Jesus Christ His Holy son, and in the Holy Ghost, One God blessed forevermore.' Several state constitutions also required office holders to acknowledge that God was a 'rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked.'"
What Lillback can't recognize, and what Professor Peter Henriques clearly
explained is this:
If you look at the evidence [as to whether Washington appended anything to his oath], and I don't want to take [more than] a short time, but the evidence for that is surprisingly weak. It's a case where people accept something, pass it on, but the actual evidence for it is not [there], and Washington is strict constructionist. He is not going to change the constitutional oath, at least, not without anyone mentioning it. Indeed the French Ambassador, who was there, and wrote down what he said, and wrote the oath, did not put it in.
The Senate, four days after Washington's Inauguration, passed an oath for Congressmen that specifically took out the words "So help me God" [from the ad hoc oath originally taken by the House members]. I can't imagine they would have taken that out of the oath if George Washington had done it, at least without any comment.
[Note: This is a post I did back in 2004 on Roman Catholics and the natural law of America's Founding which I thought readers here would enjoy.]
The conference that I attended at Princeton brought an irony to mind—an irony that often impresses itself when I reflect on the work of the Claremont Institute: the way that orthodox Catholics, more effectively than Protestant fundamentalists, can make seemingly dogmatic religious arguments while still appealing to, and appearing to be consistent with, founding principles.
The conference was very much a “natural law” conference—literally the most distinguished (Thomistic) natural lawyers in the world were present there. And it was also heavily Catholic attended.
This nation was founded by, for the most part, Protestants. There were very few Catholics and our founders—wary of the horrible record possessed by the Roman Church on issues of religious persecution and deprivation of liberty—and if you’ve read some of the things they said about the Church—were practically anti-Catholic bigots.
For instance, this passage by John Adams:
I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits….Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and school masters? If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola’s. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.
John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 5, 1816.
This nation was founded on “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” And these laws are ascertainable by man’s reason, wholly unassisted by faith or by Biblical Revelation, and these rules certainly didn’t need to be confirmed by any ecclesiastical authority. In other words, this nation was founded on reason, nature, or philosophy.
As Adams put it:
The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature.... [In] the formation of the American governments ... it will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of heaven.... These governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.
John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, 1788
Those who would derive political authority or political “truths” from Biblical Revelation alone—which seems to be the way in which many Protestant fundamentalists operate—are anathematized according to this nation’s founding principles, properly understood. Likewise, those who appeal to ecclesiastical authority alone (the Pope says it, therefore we have to make it into law), are equally anathematized. So, if Catholics want to write the Church’s official opinions into law, simply because they are the Church’s opinions—this no more comports with our founding principles than Protestants believing, “if it’s in the Bible, then it ought to be public law.”
Yet, Catholics, unlike most orthodox Protestants, have embraced philosophy—seeking Truth by observing nature using unassisted reason—which has its antecedents in Aristotle and, for Catholics, sees its fullest expression in Aquinas. And many official Catholic doctrines are derived not from the Bible alone, or ecclesiastical authority alone (or some combination thereof), but from (their understanding) of the natural law. In other words, the Papal authorities, when they issue their official doctrines, often make arguments, based on universal principles of nature and reason, to justify their case. And basing laws on universal rational principles is what our nation is founded on.
So for instance, when Catholic natural lawyers Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley, drafted a brief on behalf of the Family Research Council in defense of sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, they did not appeal to literal passages in the Bible, or the Pope’s ecclesiastical authority in attempting to make a legal argument as to why such laws should remain on the books—to do so would be un-American. Rather they appealed to an Aristolean-Aquinas understanding of “nature” that is ascertainable by man’s reason alone.
In other words, they can reasonably argue that they appealed to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” This morning, watching a show on America’s Founding Principles, put on by Rev. D. James Kennedy, Roy Moore was called upon to “inform” us what the “laws of nature and nature’s God” really mean. And he answered, predictably, “everything that’s written in the pages of the Bible.” In other words, Biblical Revelation, unaided by Man’s Reason. And in fact, he got it exactly wrong, exactly backwards, and in doing so demonstrates the abysmal ignorance of Protestant fundamentalists who argue that America is a “Christian Nation,” in a public, governmental sense.
Now that’s not to say that what is written in the Bible NEVER reflects the natural law—that the two are mutually exclusive phenomena. Indeed, what the Thomistic natural lawyers will tell you—what any natural lawyer will tell you—what’s written in the Bible often dovetails with natural law (Harry Jaffa and Claremont commonly stress that Reason & Revelation largely agree on most matters). But in order to be a valid basis for a public act, a particular move must have a “public reason” or must be vetted by natural reason, in addition to whatever support there is in the Bible for it.
William Galston, at the conference, gave a great anecdote illustrating this: In Genesis we see Abraham remonstrating with God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah. Abraham is concerned that God would destroy the unjust along with the just. This implies that even God can be unjust—that there are certain objective standards of justice that men can know for themselves that are independent of the arbitrary actions of the Creator. And indeed God does obey the natural law by agreeing not to destroy those cities if indeed there are a certain number of righteous to be found there. And when the cities were destroyed, it was only the guilty who got it (Lot and his family were spared). That is a passage of the Bible that confirms natural law—that there are independent rational standards of justice that are known cross-culturally and exist outside of Biblical Revelation and that God Himself will not violate.
And even many socially liberal natural lawyers such as myself can find many parts of Biblical Revelation that serve as good grounds for public policy. For instance, “thou shall not kill; thou shall not steal….”
We can base public policy on the principles illustrated in those certain passages of the Bible. However, certain passages of the Bible give no public reasons needed to serve as legitimate bases for public policy.
For instance—again part of Galston’s analogy—when God asks Abraham to kill his son Isaac, there is no reason or rhyme to be found. The righteousness of that passage must be accepted by faith alone; it has no explanation or verification in nature or reason. As such, it would be wholly inappropriate for that passage of the Bible to have anything to do with public policy or our public laws. It would be perfectly fine for that Biblical passage to be part of the laws of the conscience of an individual, but no more.
But I digress.
On another note—I also find it a little odd that some prominent non-Catholics, for instance, Hadley Arkes (who was at the conference) and Harry Jaffa (who wasn’t), posit a very Thomistic, Catholic, understanding of nature…but without being Catholics themselves. And correspondingly, Jaffa and Arkes have a big following among doctrinaire Catholics. For instance, the Claremont Institute has a heck of a lot more conservative devout Catholic members and followers than they do of Protestant fundamentalists who care very little for “man’s reason unassisted by faith.” And Arkes commonly writes for Richard John Neuhaus Catholic Theocon Magazine, First Things.
And of course, there is the whole issue of whether when men like Jefferson, Madison, and Adams spoke of “the laws of nature and nature’s God” that they were referring to a Thomistic understanding of nature. Personally, I don’t think they were. But that’s a topic for another discussion.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Feb. 6, 2007 - National Constitution Center - Washington: Devout or Deist
I made a special effort to attend, because Peter R. Henriques had given me an indication that if the opportunity arose, he would say a few words as to whether George Washington had added "So help me God" to his presidential oath. I was with my wife, Paula, and my fellow investigator, Matthew Goldstein. We were totally surrounded by two bus loads full of members from Pastor Lillback's Proclamation Presbyterian Church. By looking around, I imagined that everyone in the audience supported Lillback's repeated claims in his book that Washington appended "'So help me God' to his presidential oath of office (see Sacred Fire: pg 224, "The second religious precedent;" pg. 307, "Washington took the oath of office;" pg 418, "Probably the most startling example;" and pg. 504, "Washington clearly did not avoid." )
DiIulio did an excellent job as the moderator, and I was fascinated by the discussion that ensued under his direction.
Readers, who remember Jonathan's Positive Liberty blog, Marshall, Lillback, and Washington, will want to hear the discussion that took place. A podcast is available here. If the listener pays attention to the conversation as it develops from 28 minutes onwards, you'll see that Professor Henriques found an opening to challenge the notion that Washington had added a religious codicil to his oath of office.
The American Founding, by Focus on the Family
Having lived most of my life in Colorado -- and while currently residing in Colorado Springs -- I have had the privilege of exploring what this region of the country has to offer. When most people think about Colorado Springs, usually the first images that pop into their mind are those of Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, the U.S. Olympic Training Center the United States Air Force Academy, and of course...FOCUS ON THE FAMILY.
As most of you are aware, Focus on the Family is a powerful Evangelical organization that is dedicated to furthering their interpretation of Christian and family values. In addition, Focus on the Family has been deeply involved in the political and historical arenas by focusing on a conservative agenda of Christian ideology. As a result, Focus on the Family has become a powerful voice in the shaping of political and American historical thought for many of its followers.
With that said, I thought some of you might enjoy a brief "virtual tour" of the Focus of the Family Welcome Center, where they provide a brief preview of their take on early American history and the role of religion in shaping that history. First off, I must apologize for the mediocre quality of the video that I took during my visit. My camera is not the best and unfortunately the batteries don't last long. With this in mind, I give you The history of America's founding, by Focus on the Family:
Here are some additional pictures:
**FYI, I have intentionally withheld my personal opinions of this video and of Focus on the Family in general, so that you could make your own opinions without any influence on my part. Though I do not personally agree with a lot of what Focus on the Family stands for, particularly their take on early American history, I do want to emphasize that my visit to their Welcome Center was very enjoyable. I was impressed by their friendliness and assistance. Their facilities are extraordinary to say the least.**
Monday, June 23, 2008
I'd like to thank Dr. John Fea of Messiah College and the Religion in American History blog for his kind words on my blog research and plugging American Creation. If I may return the favor, Religion in American History is a great, informative blog, one I regularly check. Fea writes:
One of their contributors, Jon Rowe, is the most dogged critic of the Christian America thesis I have ever run across and I have learned much from reading his own blog over the last few years.
As some of you know, I am writing a popular book for the church tentatively titled "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Primer for Christians," so needless to say I will be checking American Creation often.
I look forward to reading his book. As for my being the most dogged critic of the Christian America thesis, I think perhaps that title belongs to Chris Rodda. Though I am dogged and indeed, probably overly engage in shrill rhetoric when mentioning the names of David Barton, William Federer, and D. James Kennedy -- the "Christian America" villains -- I try to replace the "Christian America" thesis with a nuanced and balanced view that appreciates the role religion in public life had at the time of the American Founding. A warm, benign theism, invariably spoken in generic philosophical terms that connected Christianity with non-biblical religions, a "Nature's God" that grants men unalienable rights.
Where we run into a problem is when public supplications to God conflict with the equally valid Founding principle that all citizens, including atheists or polytheists ought to be treated as equals. It's equality, not separation, that often leads to the muting of publicly endorsed "God-talk." Even John Adams, a very religious man, but a heterodox unitarian said:
“Government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his Opinions. Let him have a care of his Practices.”
–- John Adams to John Quincy Adams, June 16, 1816.
Whether an atheist simply hearing (or seeing) publicly sponsored God-talk that makes him feel like a second class citizen is a "constitutionally actionable" harm I am not convinced and I think reasonable people can and should debate the issue. But the point that needs to be stressed is equal rights for everybody in regard to religion is a foundational American ideal.
As to whether I/we should continue to use harsh rhetoric when dealing with the aforementioned Christian America figures, that's a current matter of debate at American Creation. I think Rev. Brian Tubbs is probably right that the gentlemanly thing to do is engage in civil, scholarly debate, not always be in shrill rhetorical attack mode. Though with Barton and Kennedy, sometimes it's difficult to resist temptation.
The Religious Paradox of George Washington
There is no better example of this historical quandary, which surrounds virtually every aspect of Washington’s life, than that of his religious beliefs. For nearly two centuries, Americans have fought over Washington’s personal theological philosophy in an effort to “claim” him as their own. Whether in the form of a politician, historian, minister, etc., the religious beliefs of George Washington have been subjected to the fires of partisan debate and spiritual deliberation.
There are a number of reasons that Washington stands out from his fellow founders. First of all is the simple fact that most of the other mainstream founders -- Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, etc. -- are relatively easy to understand in terms of their religious beliefs. Washington, however, is a different story. As a man who “developed the most notorious model of self-control in all of American history,” Washington has been dubbed “the original marble man” for his desire for personal privacy and mystery (Joseph Ellis, His Excellency, 37). Even Washington’s favorite guide, Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, a book he recited throughout his life, contain insights into Washington’s reclusive nature:
35th Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.It therefore comes as no surprise that a man of such seclusion would prove very difficult to pinpoint on the religious spectrum.
73d Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.
88th Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many Digressigns, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse.
In addition to Washington’s desire to cultivate privacy, the following factors have also made it very difficult to ascertain with any level of certainty Washington’s religious beliefs:
1.) As the most celebrated founding father, Washington has become a “holy grail” of sorts for both Christian enthusiasts and secular devotees. In essence, Washington is the Tiger Woods of founding fathers.
2.) The sheer lack of “smoking gun” evidence to support Washington’s Christian orthodoxy or devotion to deism makes any clear-cut classification of Washington into either camps look factually foolish.
3.) Current trends in American pop-culture seem to distort the historical record regarding Washington’s religious beliefs.
As a result, Washington's religious views have become an enigma or paradox of sorts for historians and theologians alike.
To pinpoint Washington on the religious spectrum, we must first eliminate deism as having any serious influence on Washington. To be considered a true deist, one must reject the belief that a supreme being intervenes in the affairs of men. Simply put, Washington does not meet this definition. In a number of his letters, Washington regularly pointed to the hand of providence as being regularly involved in the affairs of men. In a letter to Governor Trumball, Washington writes:
"Allow me to return you my sincere thanks for the kind wishes and favorable Sentiments express'd in yours of the 13th Instant. As the Cause of our common Country, calls us both to an active and dangerous Duty, I trust that Divine Providence, which wisely orders the Affairs of Men, will enable us to discharge it with Fidelity and Success" [my emphasis].In his General Orders to the Continental Army, Washington insisted that "Next to the favour of divine providence, nothing is more essentially necessary to give this Army the victory over all its enemies, than Exactness of discipline" [my emphasis]. Other examples of Washington giving praise to providence can be found here and here.
With deism being eliminated as a possible definition for Washington's faith, we are left to ascertain to what level Washington embraced Christianity. To do this, it is important that we first define what orthodox Christianity would look like in Washington’s world. Having been born into the Anglican faith, Washington -- like every other Anglican of the 18th century -- was expected to adhere to certain creeds, which demonstrated his piety and devotion to God. Of course we cannot simply assume that Washington was a devout Anglican simply from his membership in that church because, after all, baptism was performed at infancy. This means that to resolve the "Paradox" of Washington's faith we must look at what he chose to do as an adult.
The Communion Debate
One of the first points that people look at to prove Washington's piety or the lack thereof is the practice of communion. The 39 Articles of faith of the Church of England are a perfect illustration of some of the basic beliefs that a devout Anglican was expected to embrace. When it comes to the practice of communion, the articles state the following:
Article XXV: Of the Sacraments
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same have they a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.
Article XXVIII: Of the Lord's Supper
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
Article XXIX: Of the Wicked which do not eat the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord's Supper
The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.
Article XXX: Of both kinds
The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people; for both the parts of the Lord's Sacrament, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.
Or as John 6:53 states:
Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.From the very doctrine of the Anglican Church, it is clear that communion was a divinely-sanctioned practice that was required of the orthodox believer.
Now, as most enthusiasts of early American religion know, Washington's participation in communion has been a hotly debated issue. Those who argue in defense of Washington's Christian orthodoxy will regularly dismiss this issue by claiming that an individual does not need to take the Lord's Supper to be a Christian. While this may be true, let us keep in mind that AS AN ANGLICAN, Washington had been raised to revere communion as a holy institution that was required of the devout believer. In other words, to be considered ORTHODOX in belief, an individuals participation in the Lord's Supper is a good barometer.
Unfortunately for historians, there are no surviving documents from Washington to help shed light on this issue. However, there are a number of documents from Washington's contemporaries, which prove very helpful in this debate. For example, Dr. James Abercrombie, who was the assistant rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, stated the following in regards to Washington's participation in communion:
[O]n Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to sate the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, and, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U. S., he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the public, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never become a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sundays, tho', at other times, constant attending in the morning...In another account, Bishop William White states:
...That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace [my emphasis].
In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say, that General Washington never received communion, in the churches of which I am a parochial minister.From the noted evidence, Washington's participation in the Lord's Supper, an ordinance of great importance to the Anglican Church, is highly in doubt.
In defense of Washington, there are those who point out that Dr. James Abercrombie and Bishop William White were ardent loyalists during the American Revolution, and could have distorted the facts surrounding Washington's faith. In addition, some also suggest the possibility that Washington refused communion because of the political leanings of these ministers, or possibly because he did not feel worthy. As 1 Corinthians 11:29 states:
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.In the end, the communion issue is a difficult one to pinpoint with any degree of certainty. Though the accounts of Washington's avoidance to take communion are quite strong, we will never be able to ascertain Washington's state of mind regarding this ordinance. Perhaps he avoided communion because he thought of it as a silly practice, or perhaps he felt personally unworthy to partake of Christ's flesh and blood. Whatever the reason, the fact that Washington purposely avoided communion is a significant component in determining his faith.
Washington and Prayer
Another issue that regularly comes up when discussing the faith of George Washington is prayer. Virtually every American has seen the infamous painting of the General on his knees in the snow of Valley Forge, humbly beseeching the God of heaven for his protection and blessings. As I have argued in a former post, the Prayer at Valley Forge is almost certainly as mythical a story as that of the Cherry Tree or the Silver Dollar. What is not disputed, however, is the fact that Washington was very much a man of devout prayer. In his 1200 page biography of Washington, author Peter Lillback provides a large collection of what he calls Washington's "written prayers." This collection in and of itself serves to prove the fact that Washington prayed on a regular basis. As a result, those who dispute Washington's devotion to prayer find their argument on very shaky ground. On the other hand, these "written prayers" still raise serious doubts about Washington being an orthodox believer. For example, here are the actual phrases that Washington used in his "written prayers" to describe divinity, along with the number of times they were used:
"Providence" - 26 times
"Heaven" -25 times
"God" - 16 times
"Almighty God" - 8 times
"Lord" - 5 times
"Almighty" - 5 times
"Author of all Blessings" - 3 times
"Author of the Universe" - 3 times
"God of Armies" - 3 times
"Giver of Victory" - 3 times
"Great Ruler of the Universe" - 2 times
"Divine Protector" - 2 times
"Ruler of Nations" - 2 times
"Particular Favor of Heaven" - 2 times
"Divine Author of Life and Felicity" - 2 times
"Author of Nations" - 1 time
"Divine Being" - 1 time
"Allwise Dispenser of Human Blessings" - 1 time
"Supreme giver of all good Gifts" - 1 time
"Sovereign Dispenser of Life and Health" - 1 time
"Source and Benevolent Bestower of all good" - 1 time
"Power which has Sustained American arms" - 1 time
"Allwise Providence" - 1 time
"Infinite Wisdom" - 1 time
"Eye of Omnipotence" - 1 time
"Divine Author of our Blessed Religion" - 1 time
"Omnipotent being" - 1 time
"Great Spirit" - 1 time
"Glorious being" - 1 time
"Supreme being" - 1 time
"Almighty being" - 1 time
"Creator" - 1 time
"Jesus Christ" - 0
"Salvation" - 0
"Messiah" - 0
"Savior" - 0
"Redeemer" - 0
"Jehovah" - 0
With such a large assortment of phrases, I find it amazing that Lillback does not provide a single example of where Washington prayed to Jesus specifically or directly.
Along with the actual wordage of Washington's prayers, a number of historians and skeptics point to the fact that Washington did not kneel in prayer. As Bishop White stated:
The father of our country, whenever in this city, as well as during the Revolutionary Was as during his presidency, attended divine service in Christ Church of this city...His behavior was always serious and attentive; but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to truth to declare, that I never saw him in the said attitude.While this may seem like a mundane issue -- and I would agree with such an assessment -- a number of historians use this point to illustrate Washington's distrust of pious religion. Though this may be the case, I believe that the larger issue, the fact that Washington DID pray, is of far greater importance.
As was the case with his participation in communion, Washington's prayers are, at best, very contradictory evidence. The fact that he prayed should be obvious to anyone. However, to whom he was praying to is in question. Though he was not known to have knelt in prayer, Washington was, in the end, a devout man of prayer.
To be (a Christian) or not to be (a Christian). That is the question.
As noted above, any argument of Washington being a deist is historically inaccurate and, quite frankly, silly. On the other side of the coin, to what degree Washington accepted and embraced the Christian faith -- and more specifically his Anglican faith -- is difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty. For example, Dr. James Abercrombie publicly questioned Washington's Christianity when he wrote:
I do not believe that any degree of recollection would bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation; further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance on Christian worship, in connection with the natural reserve of his character.On the other hand, Washington's adopted daughter, Nelly Custis, had this to say regarding Washington's faith:
I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.Again, this religious paradox of George Washington makes it almost impossible to say conclusively what Washington's feelings towards Christianity actually were.
To add another level of complexity to this argument, Christian apologists, who argue for Washington's orthodoxy, regularly site his letter to the Delaware Indian chiefs in May of 1779. In the letter, Washington states that these Indian Tribes, would "do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ." In contrast, those who favor the secularism of Washington counter with his 1796 letter to a group of Indian tribes, in which he invokes the "Great Spirit" of the Indian people. Yet again, an obvious contradiction prevents us from conclusively pinpointing Washington's view on Christianity.
One last thing to consider is the impact of unitarianism -- small u as Jon Rowe points out -- on the religion of our founding generation. Instead of making that argument here, I will simply refer you to an earlier posting that I did on this specific issue. You can find it by clicking here.
In conclusion, though the religious paradox of George Washington prevents us from determining his exact beliefs, we are still able to make a few general conclusions:
1.) Washington was not a deist.
2.) It is virtually impossible to classify Washington as a Christian in the orthodox sense. The evidence available suggests otherwise. His lack of participation in communion, coupled with the absence of Christian supplication in prayer, creates more than a reasonable doubt on this matter.
3.) Washington was a man of prayer.
4.) At the very least, Washington maintained a deep appreciation and allegiance to Christianity. This is evidenced by his regular attendance and his devotion to Christian principles.
5.) Maybe most importantly, Washington's religion is the quintessential enigma of early American religious history.
So how should we classify Washington? Perhaps it would be smart, based on the body of evidence, to not classify him at all. However, in my opinion, I see Washington as a Christian-leaning unitarian.