Look up at the ceiling of the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and you'll see a pantheon of gods. On the perimeter is Minerva, with helmet and spear, symbolizing science.  Neptune straddles a chariot led  by seahorses. Vulcan, the god of the forge, stands imposingly near a  canon.  And there in the center of the rotunda is the greatest god of  them all. No, not Zeus – George Washington.

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.While at church, Washington was "always serious and attentive,"  reported William White, the minister at Christ Church in Philadelphia during and after the revolution – but he never kneeled.  More significant, Washington did not generally take communion, perhaps the most deeply spiritual act in the Anglican Church.  In fact, he would generally leave services before his wife Martha, who often did take  the sacrament. Dr. James Abercrombie, assistant rector of Christ  Church acknowledged that Washington was "a professing Christian" who attended regularly but added, "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." So disappointed was Abercrombie that he made a not-so-veiled reference to Washington's behavior in a sermon. When Washington learned of the sermon he dug in his heels. He explained that if  he were to suddenly switch to taking communion, after years of not doing so, it would be viewed as "an ostentatious display of religious  zeal."   Significantly, Washington's solution, then, was not to start  taking communion – but rather to avoid church on the Sundays when  communion was being offered.

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?
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