- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

Biographers and historians have characterized the religious beliefs of George Washington as deist, saying he had a general belief in God but did not subscribe to Bible-based Christianity.

This assertion is an error, say Michael Novak and Jana Novak, authors of “Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country.”

“It’s easy to prove he’s not a deist. It’s hard to prove he’s a Christian,” Mr. Novak said.

Mr. Novak and his daughter presented their book at a panel discussion this month at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) in Northwest.

They wrote the book, they said, at the request of James Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, Washington’s Virginia home. Several visitors to the estate’s bookstore had requested a book about Washington’s religious beliefs.

“Many of the most popular books on Washington tend to not give religion a lot of coverage,” Mr. Rees said. “There has been a need for someone to come in and investigate Washington’s relationship with his God and sum up what kind of man he was in terms of that religion.”

Washington, a planter, businessman, general and the nation’s first president, was a lifelong Anglican who used a general rather than a confessional language of religion in his proclamations, general orders and 1796 “Farewell Address,” the Novaks said. He talked of God as Providence, the Creator, the Supreme Being, and Great Lord and Ruler of Nations, using nonsectarian, nondenominational names, they said. He did not use Christian terms such as “Savior” or “Redeemer,” they said.

Like many Anglicans, Washington understated his piety, Mr. Novak said. Records show that he attended church about once a month.

The nouns Washington used made it easy for historians to dismiss him as a deist, Ms. Novak said, but the verbs he used were in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In his “Thanksgiving Proclamation” of 1789, for example, Washington implores God for “His protection and favor.”

If he were a deist, Washington would not ask God to intervene, Ms. Novak said.

Washington and the other Founding Fathers wanted to prevent a government-established church, but did not advocate complete separation of faith and public life, said Matthew Spalding, one of the panelists and director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for American Studies.

The Founders thought that removing religion from the public square would violate the freedom of expression, Mr. Spalding said.

“The great lesson you get from Washington, indeed from the Founders in general, is a language to talk about the role of religion within a context of religious liberty,” he said.

The Founders wanted to provide a civil language of religion for people to use in the public square and thought government could support religious liberty while maintaining the separation of church and state, the Novaks said.

Gen. Washington ordered his troops to pray and behave like Christians. The American Civil Liberties Union would consider such language to be a breach of the separation of church and state, Ms. Novak said.

“Religion was a key support of this new government, but today you can’t even breathe the word religion in the same sentence with the word politics,” Ms. Novak said.

In Washington’s era, Mr. Novak said, some people were considered both deists and Christians. They were deist in the sense that they used an intellectual vocabulary and philosophy to discuss God, he said.

A deist, strictly speaking, does not believe in miracles and believes that God created the world but is indifferent, Mr. Novak said.

“Washington felt religion was a strong part of American life and that religion was important in creating a citizenry that could live under a democratic system,” said Mary Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon. “He wasn’t going to tell you what kind of religion it had to be. He was a strong proponent of freedom in religion.”

Washington thought religion was important for building moral character, Mr. Novak said. He asked his soldiers to thank Providence and prohibited profanity and blasphemy. He thought religion was the best way to teach honesty, courage and orderliness as well as personal responsibility and community, the author said.

“The sense of God seeing everything gives a motive for being thorough and watchful,” Mr. Novak said.

The active participation and influence of religion is key to forming and shaping moral character, necessary in a Republican form of government, Mr. Spalding said.

“The court’s jurisprudence on religions over time has had the effect of reducing the role of religion in the public square,” Mr. Spalding said.

Guided by his religion, Washington did what he considered to be the right thing, Ms. Novak said. He turned down a role as king at the end of the American Revolution and insisted on leaving office rather than serving for life, she said.

“Many aspects of government are unwritten precedents of what Washington chose to do,” she said. “He had to teach people how to become free citizens. He didn’t want to dishonor the cause and ruin the whole enterprise.”

Washington knew that he and the British prayed to the same Providence: the God who gave life and liberty, Mr. Novak said.

“Washington’s God is the God of liberty. He couldn’t imagine God favoring the British,” Mr. Novak said. “God made the world for freedom.”

It was on this belief that the soldiers dared to fight the war of independence against the British, which had one of the greatest armies in the world, Mr. Novak said. Washington asked the troops to pray to the divine Providence to bless the American effort, he said.

“The person most responsible for the existence of our nation felt that religion and morality were key to the nation’s survival,” Ms. Novak said. “It’s truly Washington’s character that has made the character of this nation.”

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