"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, July 02, 2015

George Washington, civic religion and a providential God

George Washington's pronouncements regarding civic religion were usually couched in general language.  He rarely referred to God in specific confessional terms, for example, but rather used generalized language that reflects often common 18th century Deistic terminology.  This use of generalized language was often paired with terminology designed to appeal to religious believers of a more orthodox Christian persuasion.

It is this pairing that more often than not leads to a good deal of the confusion regarding Washington's own religious beliefs and his view of faith in public life. A good example of Washington's use of language in this regard can been seen in one of his more significant public pronouncements, the Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States regarding the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783.  In that letter, Washington seeks to reinforce the stability of the early American Republic as the Continentals returned home after winning independence.  In his letter, Washington makes two particularly important points regarding the role of religion in civil life.  The first is that for a variety of reasons, including divine "Revelation," human society is improving.  As Washington writes:
The free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and, above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have a meliorating influence on mankind, and increased the blessings of society.
Note that Washington, while listing many human accomplishments in this process of improvement, he attaches priority to "the pure and benign light of Revelation." It was divine Revelation, in Washington's statement, that was most to account for the progressive improvement in human society. Not a dry and cramped secularism or a humanism operating in a universe where God is simply an inattentive watchmaker, but Revelation proceeding from an active God who was communicating with human beings, moving them constantly forward toward a better future. Washington argues that because of these many advantages -- both human and revelatory -- the happiness of the citizens of the United States as "a Nation" (and Washington uses both the singular indefinite article and a capital "N") is for the taking. If happiness and freedom do not result, "the fault with be entirely" our own. 

Second, Washington further reinforces the importance of God's action in human events by commending the state governors and their respective states to divine care.  "I now make it my earnest prayer," he writes, "that God would have you and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection[.]" Washington then states that he hopes that God would move the citizens of the country to "cultivate" a host of proper civic virtues:  obedience to governmental authorities, fellow-feeling for each other -- both fellow citizens and particularly for the returning veterans of the Continental Army -- and, most interestingly, to emulate those virtues "which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion[.]" (Italics in the original.)  After including a brief and common list of those virtues, Washington states that without "an humble imitation" of the example of the Divine Author, "we can never hope to be a happy nation."

What one sees in Washington's Circular Letter is language used that is non-confessionally specific, but which takes for granted certain key religious ideas:  1)  God is active in human affairs, moving human beings towards greater goodness and social solidarity;  2) because of the advantages they benefit from, the citizens of the United States are responsible for their freedom and happiness; and 3) human beings are called to imitate the attributes of God as He has revealed them. While Washington's Circular Letter is not a fully developed treatise in civic theology, it does manifest the key points of Washington's own views about the role of religion in human society.  And Washington's vision in that regard was one that viewed religion as a positive force in human life and civic affairs.  It is not, to say the least, a vision of civic life that is hostile to religious faith.  While couched in language that is not expressly orthodox, it is couched in language that is certainly amenable to orthodox interpretation.

Far from religion ruining everything, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens, in Washington's Circular Letter religious faith stands as the well-spring for civic virtue and human happiness.

[Cross-posted at American Creation.]

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