Paul Gottfried weighs in:
In point of fact, the depth of Washington’s Christian beliefs is totally irrelevant to his vision of the country he helped found. It is no more relevant than whether or not Leon Trotsky really believed in Marx’s historical materialism when he led the Red Army. It is only our American obsession with personal authenticity that would cause us to worry about whether Washington was inwardly Christian. This is joined to the equally questionable notion that if Washington did not truly accept the Thirty-Nine Articles of his confession, this lack of faith had profound implications for the republic he helped set up.
Such beliefs tell more about the quality of American journalistic debate than they do about the problem of historical impact. From his statements, Washington intended the American people to be religious Christians and allowing for certain exceptions, he probably hoped they would be Christians of the Protestant variety. The fact that he and other founders include in their addresses stern affirmations on the link between religious faith and social virtue indicate they were not smirking at Christian theology, whatever their private reservations.
Current attempts to understand the social-religious view of eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen by relating them to modern-day fixations are an infantile project. The most we can hope to do by making comparative studies is to understand how different the past was from the present. Washington was no more a precursor of our egalitarian, post-Christian times than he was Donald Duck. And he could easily entertain theological doubts without wishing to hand over his country to cultural radicals, and especially not in a government that he would no longer have recognized as his. Equally important, his understanding of religion was anchored in non-modern social concepts, like deference and authority. Washington may have been the commander who finished the work begun with the Tea Party in 1773. But his solution in the end was as stately as the man himself and the holiday he proclaimed.
Larry Cebula says
I usually tell my students that “Was Founder X a Christian?” won't lead to very much knowledge. In most cases the answer is “yep.” Better questions are “What did being a Christian mean to Founder X?” (Did he believe in Biblical miracles for example, or that God hears our prayers?) and “What role did Founder X see for Christianity in the government and society of the new nation?”
I only recently discovered your blog and am enjoying it.