George Washington, the patriotic legend has it, could not tell a lie. If only we could say the same about the propagandists of the Religious Right.
In an interview Monday with Focus on the Family Action's CitizenLink Daily Update, Religious Right activist Stephen Mansfield waxes eloquent about the religious character of our first president.
Mansfield, author of Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America...and What's Happened Since, says, "Washington was a believer. Washington preached to more churches than any other president in American history -- while president. I write that he calls America to a deep faith and to the ethics of that faith.
I repeat what he said in his farewell address, that we cannot expect societal ethics apart from religion. I write that he calls men very boldly to model themselves on Jesus Christ."
But it turns out that's not a very accurate description of Washington's spiritual life.
Philander D. Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, tells a different story. Asked about Mansfield's allegations, he writes, "To tell the absolute truth, we do not know exactly what George Washington's religious beliefs were, because he was extremely private about them throughout his life. We only occasionally get glimpses of them.
"It does appear," Chase continues, "that Washington was a firm believer in Divine Providence, to use his favorite terminology for the Supreme Being, and he indicates that he believes that Providence sometimes intervenes in human affairs. But he also repeatedly asserts very strongly that Providence is 'inscrutable,' and his essentially stoic view of life suggests that he did not think that the Supreme Being could be controlled or influenced by human beings.
"We do not know of any instance," Chase says, "of Washington preaching to a church congregation while he was president or at any other time of his life. As president he did attend a variety of church services, apparently to underscore the importance of religious tolerance as part of national unity.
"Like many people in the 18th Century, including Voltaire, Washington thought that religion was a necessary underpinning for public virtue and moral behavior, although scholars can and will debate to what extent it influenced his own personal code of conduct.
"We have not found any instance," Chase concludes, "where Washington used the names 'Jesus' or 'Christ' either separately or together in his personal correspondence, but Washington certainly thought of himself as a Christian. Again, we unfortunately cannot probe but so far into Washington's religious beliefs, because he never undertook to explain or justify them in detail."
Hmmm. Now that description of Washington does not quite jibe with Mansfield's. It turns out that Washington was not the Pat Robertson in a powdered wig that Mansfield would have us believe.
Could it be that Mansfield's bogus baptism of Washington as an aggressive evangelical Christian – call it more of a waterboarding – is based largely on a desire to move America toward a fundamentalist Christian theocracy? Mansfield's book is wholly devoted to repudiating the Supreme Court's 1947 Everson decision, in which the justices unanimously embraced the concept of a wall of separation between church and state.
Asked by his Focus on the Family (FOF) interviewers what America would be like without Everson, Mansfield exulted, "It's a much, much better society. It's less open to the cults. It's less open to non-Christian religions; they'd certainly have a presence but the country would be less open to them. You'd have greater ethics invested in the hearts and the lives of children, as the Ten Commandments are held central and as some kind of a prayer is prayed daily in the school.... So I think you have a profoundly wiser, more ethical, more moral, safer country...."
Less open to "cults" and "non-Christian religions"?! In other words, Mansfield and his FOF friends want an America where their faith has government endorsement and legal privilege, and everyone else is a second-class citizen.
During their discussion, Mansfield and his Focus interviewer agreed that their theocratic goal is attainable.
"We at Focus," said the FOF interviewer, "believe it is – we couldn't fight the battles we fight if we didn't. But as a scholar, not an activist, do you think we can get to the scenario you describe?"
Replied Mansfield, "I absolutely think it's possible.... I think it's very possible to see the laws change, to see greater openness to religion, to see some of these ravages roll back." He talked about packing the courts with anti-separationist appointees, passing federal legislation curtailing court authority and spreading the Religious Right's revisionist history through soccer moms and clergy.
Those of us who care about individual freedom must see that Mansfield and company do not succeed.