On Monday we will once again celebrate George Washington’s birthday. (He was actually born on February 22, 1732.) Over the course of the last year I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Washington for my book on Christianity and the founding of the American republic. In a chapter entitled “Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?” I explore his religious beliefs and wonder whether or not we can truly call him a Christian. Washington’s faith is not easy to pin down.
I am not the only one who has wondered whether or not Washington was a Christian. His contemporaries also wondered. Reverend Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and one of the leaders of the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, felt confident that Washington was a Christian, but he was also aware that “doubt may and will exist” about the substance of his faith.
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Very nicely done.
Here's the heart of the matter: “Or, more importantly, what is at stake in deciding who is right?”
The fact that Washington's religious identity is one of the burning issues du jour has much more to do with presentist polemical/ideological battles than it does with poor old George (may he rest in peace and rise to glory).
Your conclusion — that we must be content to remain inconclusive about Washington's religious identity — is spot on. Not only is such a position historically coherent, but it also has the bonus effect of very gently rebuking the simplistic (and thus potentially dangerous) invocation of “the Founders” for various noble and not-so-noble present-day purposes.
I love the part about Washington probably not qualifying for a leadership position in your local evangelical church. The flip side of that is that Washington would probably have viewed someone like Tim LaHaye, with his conspiratorial escapist eschatology, as at best a blithering idiot, at worst a threat to republican virtue.