Today we celebrate the 278th birthday of our first president, George Washington.
Americans United honors Washington for, among many other things, his commitment to religious liberty and church-state separation. We know the Father of Our Country wanted people of all faiths and none to feel welcome in our new nation.
How do we know this? He said so. During a visit to Newport, R.I. in 1790, a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, Washington received a letter from Moses Sexias, warden of the Touro Synagogue. Sexias wanted assurance from Washington that Jewish people would have religious freedom in America.
Washington let the members of Touro Synagogue know they had nothing to fear. He wrote that the new government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Yet despite this documented and clear promise from Washington, many leaders in the Religious Right twist and falsify history and claim that Washington and our other Founding Founders intended for the United States to be a “Christian nation.”
Recently an AU supporter in Ohio sent us an e-mail that has been floating around in cyberspace spreading lies about Washington. We aren’t sure where it came from, but it’s the sort of thing your third cousin in Poughkeepsie sends to your aunt, who sends it to her nephew, who sends it to you.
In the arrogant and gloating style that is typical of these messages, it claims that since the words Laus Deo (Praise be to God) are inscribed on the cap of the Washington Monument, Washington must have been religious, and more specifically, Christian.
The e-mail continues on about how from the top of the monument, if one looks down, he will see a view of the city designed to form a perfect cross on the landscape.
“How interesting!” the email states. “And … no doubt …intended to carry a meaning for those who bother to notice!”
Finally, the misguided e-mail also quotes a prayer supposedly written by Washington where he refers to “Jesus Christ our Lord.”
None of these assertions are based on historical facts.
According to Philander D. Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, Washington was not one to make a public display of his religiosity.
“We do not know exactly what George Washington’s religious beliefs were because he was extremely private about them throughout his life,” Chase says. “We have not found any instance 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.”
That’s just it. Washington wanted to keep his religious beliefs private. He didn’t believe in using the power of government to impose religion on anyone – unlike the leaders of the Religious Right, who take every opportunity to do just that.
The fact that Laus Deo is inscribed on top of the Washington Monument has nothing to do with George Washington’s own religious beliefs, but instead reflects public thought in the mid-19th century, which had changed since Washington’s time. During that era, when the monument was built, enforcement of church-state separation was lax.
As to the cross design of the nation’s capital, there is no evidence that the city’s designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, planned for that. It was simply just a byproduct of a symmetrical design – something that is found in cities all over the world.
The “prayer” turns out to have been a cobbled-together mishmash drawn from a letter Washington once sent to a political ally. It was drafted by an aide; the original contains no references to Jesus.
But despite knowing the truth, Religious Right groups seem hard bent on spreading this propaganda. What’s important is that we are here to correct them, using real facts.
Those facts clearly show that George Washington believed in true religious freedom, and that meant keeping religion separate from government. We’re thankful for that vision.
Take a minute to celebrate Washington’s legacy today. And as you’re doing so, reflect on this sobering thought: Washington’s reluctance to wear his religion on his sleeve and his deistic views would make it very difficult for the Father of Our Country to get elected today. Isn’t that sad?