It is always nice when the first review of one’s book is an appreciative one, as was the review of Washington’s God in last Sunday’s New York Post–although, as a general principle, I’ve always preferred a negative review (as was the New York Sun’s) to no review at all. There is nothing more painful to a writer than being totally ignored, or even mostly ignored.
Yet there is a further reason that Jana (my daughter, and co-author of Washington’s God) and I didn’t particularly mind the negative review in the New York Sun: it was plainly a review of someone else’s book.
The reviewer in the Sun gave several reasons why Washington was probably not a Christian, but so did we–in fact, we gave the very same ones the reviewer offered as his own, and several more to boot. We never supposed we could prove that Washington was a Christian–not from what he wrote, at least. But we did conclude that, taken altogether, the evidence from his life favored the claim that he was. So we laid out all the evidence we could find, pro and con, and argued for our conclusion.
What we did prove, and quite conclusively, is that Washington cannot be called a Deist–at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian. Although he did most often address God in the proper names a Deist might use–such as “Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” and “Disposer of all human events”–the actions that Washington expected God to perform, as expressed both in his official public prayers (whether as general or as president) and in his private prayers as recorded, are the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil (in this case, between liberty and the deprivation of liberty), etc. Many persons at the end of the 18th century were both Christians and Deists. But it cannot be said, in the simpleminded sense in which historians have become accustomed to putting it, that Washington was merely a Deist, or even that the God to whom he prayed was expected to behave like a Deist God at all.
It was plain silly of the reviewer in the Sun to suggest that Jana and I were making Washington over in our own image. We are both Catholics, and Washington certainly was not. At our deaths, my daughter and I would want a priest to be present, to bless us with the holy oils, hear our confessions, bring us as communion the Bread of Life, and in that way send us into eternity with three sacraments at once. Washington had none of this, but we do not count as less than Christian his dignified, dutiful, peaceful death, in which his last words were an eloquent Anglo Saxon Amen, namely “‘Tis well!” Christians die in many, many ways, and not all Christians share in Catholic rites. We nevertheless could find our Christian sensibilities in Washington’s actions, which our reviewer–whose principle seemed to be that the only safe Christian is an unserious one–could not. In any case, it seemed very important to our reviewer that Washington not be seen as a Christian. For our part, we judged the issue to be one of greater and lesser probabilities. Reasonable persons might disagree.
As for Washington, it is certain that he took the issue very seriously indeed. In his Farewell Address, he described morality and religion as “indispensable” to a Republic. He practically called that man a traitor who would undermine religion in the nation. And he added that reason and past experience would teach us the folly of believing that a whole nation, whatever might be said of minds of peculiar structure, could long be moral without religion. For Washington, this was a big issue, even if he had come down expressly on the other side of the reviewer in the Sun.
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.