The painting, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” reminds us of a special challenge when assessing the faith life of George Washington: he was deified so early that it’s nearly impossible to separate fact from wishful thinking. For instance, it turns out that the source for the story about Washington praying on bended knee at Valley Forge – which inspired many a patriotic painting – was the biography by Parson Weems, the same creative fellow who made up the fictitious tale about young GW chopping down the cherry tree. Weems described a witness, coming upon Washington near the camp. "As he approached the post with a cautious step, whom should he behold, in a dark natural bower of ancient oaks, but the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer!" Later historians discovered that the man to whom the story was ascribed apparently hadn’t begun working at Valley Forge until several years later. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Washington prayed, so Weems may have made up a story that captured some actual Washingtonian quality.
Not surprisingly, modern culture warriors have painted Washington as one of their own. To conservatives, he’s a veritable Disciple in a powdered wig. According to conservative minister D. James Kennedy, Washington had a "fervent evangelical faith." Secularists, on the other hand, prefer to think of Washington as the first member of the ACLU and a Deist at best. "Religion seems to have played a remarkably small role in his own life," writes Brooke Allen.
What do the knowable facts show? A portrait not likely to be satisfying to either extreme in the culture war – a spiritual man who believed God was protecting him and the nation, and yet who showed disinterest in and sometimes disdain for important facets of Christianity.
Washington was raised in an Anglican family along the Potomac River in Virginia. He owned two pews in Pohick Church, seven miles from Mount Vernon, and one in Christ Church in Alexandria. He was one of 12 vestrymen in the Truro parish, Virginia – active from 1763-1774 and a more casual member until 1784, according to David Boller, who wrote one of the most balanced assessments of Washington's religious life. Washington served on the building committee, helped with collections and performed other requisite duties.
He was a casual observer of the Sabbath and a semi-regular attendee of church – a little more than once a month, according to Boller's review of Washington's diaries. For instance, Washington attended church four times in the first five months of 1760 and 15 times in the year 1768. Sometimes bad weather prevented him from making the lengthy trip but there's also evidence that Washington visited friends, traveled or went foxhunting instead of to church. One has the sense that were he alive today, he'd absolutely head to church, unless friends were gathering to watch an important football game.
Washington rarely referred to Jesus Christ or Christianity in his writings. He often spoke of God, Providence, the Great Architect and other formulations for the deity but only referred to Christ in a handful of instances, which have been widely quoted. The most famous of these invocation seemed to be in his last communication as commander of the army June 8, 1783 when he wrote the governors that they should all "do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of the blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation."
However, Washington was not a Deist. He repeatedly ascribed the outcome of military battles and events to God's intervention. He continually beseeched the troops to attend worship in order to attract the "Smiles of Providence." After victories in Saratoga and Montreal, he thanked God for His interventions. On November 2, 1783 he said, in his farewell orders, that the "singular interposition of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving." He thanked "the God of Armies" and, when he resigned his commission, turned away the compliments about his own skill by saying that his efforts were "superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, and the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven."
He issued many orders calling for days of prayer, was heard to pronounce or call for prayers at meals and most important seemed to believe that God could be influenced by the prayers and behavior of men. These comments would seem to indicate that although Mason Weems concocted the Valley Forge scene, Washington did pray, and did believe that God was present and aware enough to hear and react. Moreover, he believed that religion was essential for the well-being of democracy and the future of the United States. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports," he said in his farewell address. "Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
What then to make of Washington’s faith? By the definition of Christianity offered by modern-day liberal Christians, Washington would pass muster. He believed in God, attended church, endorsed the golden rule, and valued the behavioral benefits of religion. But for those who define being a Christian as requiring the acceptance of Christ as personal savior and the Bible as God's revelation, Washington, based on what we know, probably was not “Christian.”
This poses a delicious challenge for culture warriors: if you want to treasure Washington as he truly was, you'll be forced to hail someone who's behavior doesn’t comport with your own. He was neither evangelical nor secularist - just a great man. Washington was able to tolerate people of faiths vastly different from his own. The question for modern culture warriors is: can we treasure Washington as he was, rather than what we might want him to be?