God & George Washington

, Alanna Hultz, Leave a comment

In Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith Junior’s book Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State they discuss George Washington’s view of religion and how it played a role in church and state. They also examine Thomas Jefferson’s views on religion and how they differed from George Washington’s.

Ross and Smith believe “George Washington knew that the miraculous care of Providence had enabled him to survive the French and Indian War.” During the war Washington escaped unharmed even though he had 4 bullets in his coat and said it was all thanks to Providence. The authors said “under his command, the regiment would be friendly toward religion, because religion was a necessary prerequisite to morality and discipline in the military.” Washington also wanted a Chaplain for his troops. He wrote two letters to Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie and one to John Robinson, speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses asking that a Chaplain be provided. The authors quote Washington as saying “A Chaplain for the Regiment ought to be provided; that we may at least have the show, if we are said to want the substance of Godliness!”

In 1758 Dinwiddie resigned for health reasons and John Blair temporarily took his place and after three years Washington finally received a positive response and the legislature approved a government-funded Chaplain. The authors said “Washington’s responsibilities as commander of the Virginia Regiment gave him new, compelling reasons to ponder church-state issues.” There are other examples throughout the book that describe Washington’s thoughts on religion. Ross and Smith discussed the fact that Washington was a Freemason. There are various forms of freemasonry but they all share moral and metaphysical ideals, which include, in most cases, a constitutional declaration of belief in a Supreme Being. The authors point out “the nondenominational yet devoutly religious approach of Freemasonry is remarkably like the path Washington eventually chose as a political and military leader.”

While Washington served as commander-in-chief of the army, he ordered his army to observe “The day of public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.” The authors said “this would be the first in a long series of such orders requiring that his troops participate in public religious observances.”

In chapter five, Ross and Smith explore Washington’s need for religion to be public. Washington believed that joint action by the people would lead to public benefits. The authors quote Washington saying “with God’s help, Americans might render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.” They also note that “Washington continued as president to use non-denominational language when he addressed matters of religion.” The authors agree “the president’s actions thus reflect his considered view that government support of religious activity was constitutional, at least prior to adoption of the First Amendment.”

The authors wrote “in regards to matters of church and state, three general principles ruled his decision-making.” The first was that government entities under Washington’s command were religion-friendly. The authors note, “his goal was to promote religion, officially, in a way that would maximize the public good.” The second was there would be religious controversies, but Washington stated “religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” The last was a firm belief in freedom of individual religious conscience.

In the Epilogue, Thomas Jefferson’s views on religion were explored. Ross and Smith note “Jefferson was arguably less devout and certainly less orthodox than many of his peers.” During the presidential campaign of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Adams supporters accused Jefferson of being an atheist. The authors write “in the end, the charges of atheism against Jefferson were insufficient to push Adams to victory.” The authors also note that Jefferson was not an atheist and say “Jefferson’s views on religious policies differed from those of his contemporaries.” They go on to give an example and say “he had been criticized for his failure to issue thanksgiving proclamations, as Washington and Adams had.”

After Jefferson’s presidential victory, he decided to write a letter to the Danbury Baptists, to promote his religious views. In the letter Jefferson declared “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislation should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Ross and Smith said “Jefferson thus became the first American to authoritatively suggest that the First Amendment to the Constitution requires separation between religious and civil entities.”

Alanna Hultz is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.