Last week Bryan Fischer quoted a passage from George Washington’s farewell address and strongly declared that if you are not a Christian, you are by definition anti-American and a traitor. When called out, he responded that he didn’t say it, Washington said it. Except, of course, he didn’t.
“I say to the Huffington Post, ‘I didn’t say that,’” Fischer said. “I didn’t say that you can’t be a patriot if you don’t support Christianity and the Ten Commandments; George Washington said that … Your issue is not with me, your argument is not with me, I’m not the one that said you can’t be a patriot if you don’t support Christianity and the Ten Commandments, George Washington said that!”
No, he didn’t. Here’s the quote he used from Washington:
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.
Notice that Washington does not say Christianity is necessary for morality and patriotism, he says religion is necessary for them. This is a crucial distinction. Like his pal David Barton, Fischer automatically takes any mention of God or providence or creator as meaning the Christian god of the Bible, but that is a mistake. It is especially a mistake when quoting George Washington, who was both a unitarian (small l) and a universalist. That means he believed that all religions were valid paths to a common deity.
When he wrote to Native American chiefs, he referred to that deity as the Great Spirit, just as they would. He very conspicuously did not take communion. And the name Jesus only appears a single time in all of his writings and speeches. The language he uses is always very broad, broad enough to encompass any specific religion — the ruler of all nations, the great architect of the universe, and so forth. That was in line with his universalism. When Washington says religion, he means religion, not Christianity. For more information about this, see this post by my friend Jon Rowe.