Let George Washington Be George Washington

Let George Washington Be George Washington October 22, 2016

Why do American Christians — used to be mainly Protestants but now Roman Catholics are joining in — need to turn the “founding fathers” of the nation into Christians? The political historian, Paul Gottfried, argues that Washington’s faith was irrelevant to the country he led or the significance of the new nation:

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.

Equally important to notice about the founders, according to Gottfried, is that their debates are a long way from ours:

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.

In other words, Washington would be as uncomfortable in our time as we would be in his. At some point, American believers should worry less about religion in the founding than the differences between a nation comprised of 13 states of modest means on the Eastern seaboard with no real presence in foreign relations and a nation of 50 states dominated by consumerism whose foreign policy has global consequences. That would mean contrasting American greatness then with American exceptionalism now. It might also lead to questions about whether a Constitution written for 18th-century republican greatness still defines a 21st-century nation-state with great power. Government was friendly to religion then because religion threatened the government less than it does a superpower trying to unity a diverse population to dabble in an even more religiously diverse world.


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