Falsehoods, By George!: Religious Right Seeks Retroactive Baptism Of America’s First President

If you have nothing better to do on Wednesday, May 8, at 6:30 p.m., you could go to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and listen to a bunch of Religious Right activists tell lies about George Washington.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and other members of Congress are sponsoring an event to celebrate the 224th anniversary of the inauguration of Washington. The event is called “Washington: A Man of Prayer.”

The most well-known speaker at the event is that great theologian and moral leader Newt Gingrich. From there, things kind of go downhill fast. Among the other speakers are Bishop Harry Jackson, a gay-bashing pastor from Maryland; former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts; anti-abortion activist Lila Rose; Jim Garlow, a California pastor (and Gingrich crony) who seeks to politicize fundamentalist churches; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (an outfit designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center).

The event, a flyer promises, will offer “an opportunity to offer prayers on behalf of the Nation, our President and his Cabinet, the Supreme Court and its Justices, and Members of Congress.” (The haphazard capitalization is from the original.)

I have no problem with people getting together to pray for the country, but I do wish they’d leave poor George Washington out of it. There is no evidence that he would have agreed with the fundamentalist zealots of today’s Religious Right.

Because Washington is such a towering figure in our history, he has become the subject of much mythologizing and wishful thinking on the part of the Religious Right. Its leaders would like to claim him as one of their own. They’re trying to retroactively baptize him.

That works only if you don’t know anything about history. The evidence simply doesn’t back up the Religious Right’s claims about our first president. Consider this material, drawn from Brooke Allen’s book Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers:

* “[Washington] paid little attention to the Sabbath or any other outward manifestation of religiosity. We have various eyewitness accounts of life at Mount Vernon which do not much feature religious observance.”

* Ona Judge Staines, who had been a slave at Mount Vernon, did not report a lof of religious activity there: “The stories of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation. Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.”

* As president, Washington attended religious services regularly but more or less stopped once he was out of office. During the last three years of his life, he attended services a grand total of three times.

* Washington’s aversion to communion is well known. When he did attend services, he would routinely leave services before communion was offered.

* On his deathbed, Allen reports, Washington spurned suggestions that he receive a visit from a clergyman. Allen writes, “Washington requested no such supernatural aid in his final hours, though he was well aware he was dying. His last act on earth, in fact, was to take his own pulse, the consummate Enlightenment gesture….”

But what about that famous painting of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge? The painting in question was created by an artist named Arnold Friberg in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial.

It’s based on a story about Washington being seen deep in prayer at Valley Forge that comes from one man, Isaac Potts, who is not considered reliable. In 1918, the Valley Forge Park Commission refused to erect a marker on the spot where Washington allegedly prayed because they considered the story a legend.

But Washington added “So help me, God” to the presidential oath of office! He must have been deeply devout, right?

Once again, there is no evidence that Washington ever did this. We at Americans United got so tired of hearing this story that a few years ago we asked Philander D. Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, to weigh in on the matter.

Here is what Chase said: “[N]either we at the Washington Papers nor any other historians, to our knowledge, have been able to find any eyewitness accounts saying that Washington added the words ‘So help me God’ to the presidential oath at his first inauguration (or at his second inauguration, for that matter). ”

Chase added, “I and some other historians think that, given Washington's notably strong commitment to adhering as closely as possible to the Constitution, it is unlikely that he would have taken it upon himself to add the words ‘So help me God’ to the presidential oath.”

Many of the speakers at the May 8 event are adherents of the “Christian nation” view of American history. What did Washington think of that? Not much.

In his famous 1790 letter to Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., Washington made it clear that Jews had the same rights as everyone else in America and that religious freedom is the law of the land.

“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy – a policy worthy of imitation,” Washington wrote. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

Added Washington, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Washington’s vision of freedom of conscience was light years ahead of Hunter, Gingrich and their band of would-be theocrats. As I said, they have the right to meet for prayer. They have no right to claim George Washington as an ally.