In high school, I had a history teacher who summed up George Washington’s importance to early Americans this way: “There was God and then there was George Washington” in the minds of the people, he said.
That seems like a reasonable representation of how many contemporaries likely viewed our nation’s first president. But one could easily wonder what Washington, himself, thought about God. The Religious Right thinks it has the answer, and as usual it’s far removed from reality.
On May 7, a group of Religious Right allies and Tea Party heroes including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Steve King (R-Iowa) gathered on Capitol Hill along with evangelical pastors for an event called “Washington – A Man of Prayer.”
The event supposedly commemorates Washington’s inauguration on April 30, 1789. The event’s creator, the Rev. Dan Cummins, pastor of Bridlewood Church in Bullard, Texas, says after Washington was sworn in, he proceeded to St. Paul’s Chapel in Philadelphia and “offered a prayer of dedication to God on America’s behalf.”
“On that day, the world saw more than just the inauguration of the president of a new nation; it witnessed a watershed moment in history when the ideals penned in ink on parchment at Philadelphia’s Continental Congress would preserve what sword and patriots’ blood had inscribed on the field of battle,” Cummins says.
Not quite. Here’s what really happened: On April 30, Washington was, indeed, sworn in as the first president of the United States. He gave an address of just seven paragraphs and made no mention of God or Jesus.
According to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Washington and all members of Congress then serving proceeded to St. Paul’s for a worship service after Washington was sworn in. The service was led by the Rev. Samuel Provoost, the first official chaplain of the U.S. Senate. The National Cathedral makes no mention of Washington actually saying a prayer that day, and even if he did, it was probably as part of the assembled crowd.
Cummins’ website does not say what Washington’s supposed “prayer of dedication” actually was.
It seems once again that the Religious Right is bending, stretching and even falsifying “facts” in order to build its narrative that America’s Founding Fathers were devout, evangelical Christians. The truth simply does not support such claims.
Nominally an Anglican, Washington seems to have at least flirted with deism. He never wrote as eloquently about religious freedom as Thomas Jefferson, but that doesn’t mean Washington would have been a Religious Right ally or a fundamentalist Christian. Far from it.
In 1790, Washington responded to a letter from a Rhode Island congregation, Touro Synagogue, that had expressed its thanks for the new nation’s commitment to religious freedom.
“The Citizens of the United States of America,” he said, “have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
Washington continued, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. 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.”
That was an enlightened attitude for the 18th century, and hardly the words of a man who would want to force every American to join his church.
But there’s much more evidence to support the idea that Washington would not have supported the Religious Right’s agenda. Scholars Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore note in their 1997 book The Godless Constitution that Washington “wrote proudly of his opposition to ‘the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.’”
Kramnick and Moore, both professors at Cornell University, also noted that in 1793 Washington praised freedom of conscience. In America, Washington said, “the light of truth and reason had triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition” and each American can worship “according to the dictates of his own heart.”
The Religious Right will never accept that America is not and never has been an officially “Christian nation,” which is why these fundamentalists will continue to distort U.S. history. At least we can take comfort in the fact that the founders were on the side of separation, no matter what the fundamentalists may say.
(P.S. Americans United has not yet weighed in on everyone’s favorite racist cowboy, Cliven Bundy, but now we will. Bundy has been spreading falsehoods about America being a “Christian nation,” claiming that the U.S. Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments and the Founding Fathers asked God for help in writing the Constitution. It’s more lousy history from questionable sources.)