A version of this article first appeared on Beliefnet February 16, 2001.

Many in the United States are pleased or upset when George W. Bush leans heavily on religious symbolism in speaking about the anti-terror war and many other matters. But if George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were alive today--or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter--their spiritual beliefs would be far more controversial than Bush's, and not just because times change.

What did these great former presidents believe? Let's start with the first president.

When Washington ran for president, a few opponents tried to sully him as irreligious because he rarely attended services--though he was a vestryman in an Episcopal church in Alexandria, Virginia. Supporters answered that the Alexandria church was a two-hour horse ride each way from the general's beloved Mount Vernon, and therefore Washington usually held private vespers at home. That Washington was a believer can be found in statements such as this, from a 1778 letter about the Revolution: "The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith." Imagine the reaction if any contemporary president declared that anyone who lacks faith is "worse than an infidel," especially since as used by Washington, infidel meant Muslim.

Convinced "the Hand of providence" was guiding the establishment of the United States, Washington joined many of the Founders in believing God was forming the new country partly so that people could realize a genuine, freely chosen worship of Jesus, impossible in the entrenched denominational wars of Europe. To Washington, like many of the Founders, civilization and Christianity were the same; it was just that in the Old World, the faith had become corrupted by politics. Without "our blessed religion," Washington said in his farewell address, "we can never hope to be a happy nation." When Washington negotiated with Indians regarding bringing their children into school systems--one of his pet causes--he did so partly owing to his belief that Christianity was essential to full humanity. "You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ," Washington once told a gathering of Delaware elders. "These will make you a greater and happier people." Imagine an American president today who advised minority group members that they must embrace Christ to become "greater and happier."

Yet though Washington's assumption of America as a Christian nation would seem right-wing by today's standard, much of his theology would seem left-wing. Though historians dispute the details, Washington was probably a "deist"--a believer that nature, not revelation or church doctrine, was the proof of God.

Deism was the intellectual theology of Washington's day, best expressed in Thomas Paine's 1794 book, "The Age of Reason," which argued that clerics were spewing mumbo-jumbo and no one can be sure if the Bible is historically accurate, but we can be absolutely certain nature is so grand and intricate, it must be the work of a Creator. A favorite volume of many Founders, The Age of Reason was seen by the Anglican, Catholic, Congregational and Episcopal hierarchies of the day as a direct attack, since the book asserted that the rational person could ignore organized religion and come to his or her own conclusions about God. It would be as if, today, an American president were to declare that priests, rabbis, and ministers were mainly bureaucrats, scripture was a muddle, and each individual should arrive at his or her own spiritual beliefs through private meditation. This is more or less what George Washington thought, and a reason he preferred Vespers in rustic Mount Vernon to that Alexandria pew.

And what of Washington's membership in the Masons? Today Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that mainly raises money for charity, but then it had a hushed, secretive connotation. The goofy internal lingo of Masonic temples, such as "the Supreme Councils of the Scottish Rite" or the "Grand Encampment of Knights Templar," was whispered about as evidence of conspiracy. Masonry, which originated in Anglican England, was during Washington's time often anti-Catholic. (In the 19th century, Masonry sometimes was anti-Semitic, which would not stop the Nazis of the 1930s from denouncing many German Jews as secret servants of the Freemasons.) The Masons are not a religion--their only spiritual requirement is that members accept the existence of a supreme being-- but at various points in history have been viewed as attempting to usurp or circumvent established faiths.