- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006


By Michael Novak and Jana Novak

Basic Books, $26, 282 pages


Was George Washington a deist or was he a Christian of any sincerity? Does it even matter? We keep asking those questions, and the answers — spurred by periodic bursts of scholarly activity or religious fervor — usually shed more light on our own preoccupations than on Washington himself. As it turns out, by Washington’s careful design, the evidence one way or the other is limited and contradictory. But that hardly keeps people fascinated with him from wondering what the real answers are.

Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute and his daughter Jana, a writer, are the latest to examine the evidence and offer answers. Their book, “Washington’s God,” contends that Washington — an Anglican who was quite reserved about his beliefs and avoided most common Christian imagery in his speeches — was not the lukewarm Christian or deist most historians contend he was, but a “serious Christian” who believed in the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible and saw God at work in human affairs.

“Washington’s God” is a warm portrait of the first president, clearly the most cogent argument of its kind and a brisk, thought-provoking read. It should prompt historians to avoid labeling Washington an unqualified deist; clearly the story is more complicated than that.

As it happens, though, uncertainty is the state of evidence on this subject. The authors admit this repeatedly, acknowledging “a mass of conflicting evidence,” and are clear to note that Washington unmistakably intended to shroud his beliefs in mystery.

Most important in that regard is Washington’s order that his private correspondence with Martha be destroyed — the only place clear answers might have been found. Martha destroyed the letters shortly after his death, so we have no equivalent to John and Abigail Adams’ voluminous and revealing correspondence over 40 years on subjects ranging from everyday life to politics and theology. At least there is other less satisfactory evidence.

On the one hand, as the Novaks point out, there is evidence in Washington’s speeches, his letters to relatives, and in his background to suggest genuine Christian belief. Washington’s upbringing was Christian; his beloved Martha was a devout Christian; he was godfather to eight children; he believed the intervention of God saved him from death and the Continental Army from defeat on multiple occasions. He once told the chiefs of the Delaware tribe to adopt “the religion of Jesus Christ”; he ordered his soldiers to pray on Sunday; he was vestryman for his local church.

His public utterances are mostly bereft of overt Christian references, but his favorite term for God, “Providence,” was clearly intended to mean the Judeo-Christian God who is an active force in human events. The authors demonstrate this with extended and illuminating analysis of Washington’s speeches: What kind of “clockmaker” deist would speak of “the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course of conclusions of the late war”? Washington spoke those words in the Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789; the sentiment recurs elsewhere repeatedly.

To the extent that Washington’s reluctance to commit himself publicly on confessional and sectarian matters seems a significant qualifier, much or even most of this can be explained by the care that Washington took to appear impartial. “Washington avoided unnecessarily stoking theological rivalry,” the authors note. In a period of intense sectarian strife and in a religiously diverse country, this was clearly prudent. It was also true that the strain of Anglicanism Washington adhered to was intellectually tolerant in ways uncommon for the period.

But against all this evidence are striking facts which suggest very different conclusions. Washington apparently never took communion at his parish, which he is said to have attended once a month. Nearing death, eyewitnesses reported no prayers from Washington, just Stoic-sounding utterances. Martha sat near the foot of his deathbed and prayed with a Bible, but her husband did not participate. There were no clergy present at his death. Washington’s funeral was Masonic. The Novaks tend to discount most of this.

The authors are to be commended for restoring the Christian elements to our portrait of Washington; surely most historians have neglected the evidence. Acclaimed historian Joseph Ellis has called Washington a “lukewarm Episcopalian and a quasi-deist”; others have tended to impute mid-century agnosticism to Washington. The grounds for such assertions are quite shaky.

In some respects, though, the question of Washington’s religiosity per se begs prior questions: Why should it even matter? Clearly Washington’s spirituality is a subject of great human interest which sheds light on a towering political figure. No doubt, too, Washington’s religious life is of interest to partisans in the culture wars seeking to advance a given conception of religion’s role in the public sphere.

But in some respects this debate misses the point, which is that Washington’s deliberate obscurantism on the subject is in many ways the most interesting story here.

Washington wanted this debate to be irresolvable; he signaled as much when he and Martha agreed to destroy their letters. “[W]e might have expected from that correspondence a luminous relevation of their inner life,” the Novaks write. “Reserved and private to the end, clearly the Washingtons did not wish that to happen.”

Just as he took pains to avoid partisan and sectarian squabbles in life, Washington sought the same in death. When people who seek to appropriate him for sectarian or partisan reasons, they must stop at the veil Washington pulled over his confessional life.

No amount of inquiry or conjecture can change that.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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