Book Review

"George Washington's Sacred Fire" by Peter A. Lillback and "Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country" by Michael Novak and Jana Novak

D. G. Hart
Peter A. Lillback
Friday, June 29th 2007
Jul/Aug 2007

Odd things happen when you mix religion and politics. Just think of Constantine and the authority that the emperor had in calling synods and councils of the church, not to mention persecuting heretics with the threat of the sword. Or consider the oddity of a bishop of the church (in this case, the one in Rome) having police to patrol his own political territory, the Papal States. Of course, the idiosyncracies do not all come from the Old World. America has made its own notable contributions to the curious amalgam of religion and politics. From Protestants requiring Mormons to abandon polygamy for Utah to be admitted to the Union, to fears of Roman Catholic reproductive powers that led Protestants to promote contraception and family planning, America has not needed a state-church to experience the inconsistencies of faith-based politics.

The two books under review are further evidence of the kinds of contortions required when trying to serve two masters and make them cohere. Their subject is the faith and religious devotion of George Washington, the first president of the United States whose stature in the pantheon of American politics is rivaled only by Abraham Lincoln. Their authors come from fairly distinct religious backgrounds. Peter Lillback is a Presbyterian minister, historical theologian, and president of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). The other is Michael Novak (who wrote this book with his daughter, Jana), a Roman Catholic layman and public intellectual. And yet, despite the confessional differences of the authors, each book's treatment of Washington is remarkably similar. These books are guilty of failing to answer the simplest and most important of questions: so what? What difference does it make that George Washington was a Christian?

The reason for the question is that Washington's religious life was as conventional as his military and political life were remarkable. He was reared in an Anglican home in colonial Virginia and never suggested the least bit of discomfort with the Episcopal Church. He was a devoted husband and responsible father. While a soldier and general, Washington sought the religious well-being of those under his command and discouraged blasphemy and profanity among the troops. During his two terms in the presidency Washington continued with outward religious duties, attending church weekly. At different points in his life, he also served on the vestry of his local parish. Privately, he read the Bible, prayed frequently, and endeavored to rear his children in the faith.

Washington's conventional Anglicanism is the main reason for Lillback and the Novaks' joint conclusion that our first president was not a deist. Indeed, if by deism one means a belief in a deity who created the universe and endowed it with a certain order that would continue without direct involvement or divine sustenance, then Washington was arguably not a deist. (At the same time, since deists did not have an official organization with articles of faith and laws governing membership, defining deism is more the activity of historians and philosophers than a concrete subject simply needing of description.) As general and president, Washington appealed too many times to the interventions of a supreme power or governor of the universe who controlled the affairs of men for his God to be the remote clock-maker of deism.

Even so, proving that Washington was no deist is a different feat from concluding that he was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. The Anglican church of colonial Virginia was not known for enforcing doctrinal conformity, so the rigors of Presbyterian subscription, for instance, never hounded Washington's conventional practice. At the same time, the president's public remarks about God and Christianity do not refer to Christ or redemption. Washington's faith was a moral and utilitarian one. He believed religion was necessary for the good of society and political stability because it provided the moral codes and threatened with eternal punishments that were best suited to promote public virtue. Washington's farewell address in this regard was typical of his attitude toward Christianity:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness-these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

From the vantage of political history, Washington's remarks may be valuable for considering America's current predicaments about religion in public life, but from the perspective of religious history, the significance of his faith runs directly counter to prevailing assumptions about American Protestantism. The first president's devotion was actually an expression of the dead orthodoxy that revivalists (at the time of the Great Awakening and later in revolutionary Virginia) said was responsible for the spiritual malaise that afflicted the established Protestant churches. Revivalists like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards led a pack of itinerant evangelists who tried to instill zeal and godliness among the saints through various means that Washington's priests would have disparaged as enthusiasm. Put simply, Washington's brand of Christianity did not appear to the revivalists to be heartfelt because his faith was formal and reserved; instead what has counted for genuine faith among American Protestants since the revivals of the eighteenth century is a form of devotion marked by a conversion experience and an earnest life dedicated to witnessing and holiness. By these standards, George Washington was a spiritual failure.

Defending the first president as a model of Christian devotion, consequently, involves some negotiation with the high standard set by revivalists for genuine faith. Of the two authors, Lillback appears to be least troubled by this predicament. He is content to render Washington as an orthodox Anglican and let that conclusion confound the historians who treat the Virginian as a deist or worse. According to Lillback, "What enflamed Washington's passion and stirred his heart was that which was sacred to his soul-his utter dependence on the hand of Divine Providence." The Novaks, however, acknowledge the transformation of religion in Washington's lifetime and suggest that the new standard for Protestant piety may have prompted subsequent generations to be more critical of the president than they should have been. The Novaks put well the difference between Anglicanism and revivalism:

The two sensibilities often clashed. Not simply theology was at stake, but also a whole way of feeling and seeing. The intimacy with which evangelicals spoke of Jesus embarrassed those who had been brought up to be much more restrained and taciturn, and who accepted religious matters as part of a cherished but quiet tradition.

In other words, to evangelicals "who identified religion with vivid, immediate, intimate experience of the person of the Savior," Washington seemed to be "simply plodding along by rote, without ever having come to experience real religion."

The effort to recover the orthodox Christian Washington has a remarkable unintended consequence. Beyond the relatively simple matter of trying to set the historical record straight-that is, showing that Washington was not a deist-each of these books set out to use the first president's Christianity for contemporary political ends. For Lillback, Washington's Christianity shows the importance of orthodox Protestantism for the founding of the United States. To remember America's Christian origins is to "empower, enable, and defend the presence of a strong Judeo-Christian worldview in the ongoing development of our state and national governments and courts." The Novaks are generally reticent to make an explicit application of Washington's faith for contemporary American politics. But in building a case for his exceptional character and integrity, they do mention that "it would be a happy event if all presidents conducted themselves, to at least the extent that Washington did, as good Christians … in private and in public."

But in recovering a place for orthodox Anglicanism in the formation of the United States, these authors have also unwittingly undermined the heart religion promoted during the revivals of the eighteenth century that continue to set the pace for American Protestantism. For if Washington's faith was sufficient to pass the litmus tests of orthodoxy and sincerity, then the extra credit demanded by revivalists that believers not simply believe but demonstrate faith visibly in their daily lives was unneccesary. In other words, if Founding Father's faith was truly Christian, then revivalism's criteria for true holiness was excessive. Proponents of the Religious Right have rarely seen that to have a Christian George Washington is to ignore an enthusiastic Jonathan Edwards, or that to retain born-again Christianity is to abandon the religion of the founding generation of American statesmen. This is the unintended benefit of these books, an outcome that shows again the curiosities that result from mixing politics and religion.

Friday, June 29th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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