February 19, 2007

PECULIARLY PROPER:

Was Washington Really a Deist? (Michael and Jana Novak, February 19, 2007, First Things)

Deism is not exactly a creed with clear tenets; it is more like a tendency of the mind; a movement like rationalism or romanticism; and, in the view of some historians of ideas, a half-way marker slowly moving from Jewish or Christian orthodoxy toward early modern science. The general drift of deism is that the originating and governing force of the universe is the god of modern rationalists (Newton, Spinoza, et al.), not at all like the Great God Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible. Deists prefer the god of reason to the God of revelation.

The latter has a special love and care for particular peoples and persons, unlike the deist god, who is impersonal and indifferent to the world he sets in motion. The God of revelation intervenes and interposes in historical events and personal lives, and hears and answers prayers; the god of reason does no such things. At the same time, from various motives some Christians, even bishops and clergymen, described themselves as deists as well as Christians.

Still, in one sense "deist" is intended as the opposite of "Christian" or "Jewish," and incompatible with them. To say that Washington is a deist is in this sense to derogate from his being Christian. The evidence on this point comes down to this: When Washington prays and urges the nation (or his army) to pray, does he expect God to care about the fate of the American cause, as distinct from the British cause, since they also pray to the same God? Does he imagine God actually interposing himself in the events of history? Or inspiring a human mind with ideas, or forgiving sins?

The most important answer to these questions is found in the prayers that, as general and as president, Washington publicly urged upon the army and the nation. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 declared it "the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor . . . and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions."

In a letter announcing his retirement from the army at the close of the War, he wrote: "I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation."

Clearly these samples, only a small part of what might be adduced, are not the prayers of a deist to an impersonal, nonintervening god. These are the words of someone who expects God to be deeply involved in our nation's welfare. Why? Because he made the world for liberty, and our nation was, under God, a pioneer in political, civil, and religious liberties.

MORE:
George Washington First Inaugural Address (In the City of New York, April 30, 1789)

[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2007 12:00 AM
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