Magazine article The American Conservative

Faith of Our Father

Magazine article The American Conservative

Faith of Our Father

Article excerpt

Faith of Our Father [Under Cod: George Washington and the Question of Church and State, Tara Ross 5 Joseph C. Smith Jr., Spence Publishing, 317 pages]

THE MOST REFRESHING thing about Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State is what is not found in its 317 pages. The foreignborn big names, many of whom never set foot in this country-but who are somehow presumed to know best by the American conservative intelligentsiaare all given a sabbatical by authors Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith Jr.

Let's say, for the record, that Aquinas, Smith, Burke, von Mises, Hayek, Rand, and Strauss were mostly a fine bunch. But let's also note that many rightist scribblers today feel obligated-or inspired or peer-pressured or tenureconstrained-to leave textual offerings at the altar of foreign "greats" who were mostly oblivious to the key components of American exceptionalism.

Can't Americans have a scholarly book that explains the American political tradition in the voice of an American? Especially an American such as our first president, a man who combined words and deeds in ways that have so instructed and enlightened us?

And for those who like a debate, well, Americans can provide that, too. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had ideas very different from Washington about religion-even if, as we shall see, the differences have been greatly exaggerated in the centuries since.

In their own time, Washington and the Founders were mindful of their heritage and their history, but they were even more aware that they were creating something new-novus ordo seclorum, as it says on the dollar bill. In fact, these new Americans did a good job establishing a mostly conservative self-governing republic that flourished before many of the most revered conservative luminaries were even born or had learned to say "United States of America" in English.

And nobody was more influential in early America than George Washington. He was perfectly articulate and persuasive to his fellow citizens, even though he never went to college, let alone grad school-an enduring source of inspiration, no doubt, to today's homeschoolers.

Of course, Washington and the Founders did have help. Let's not forget that other Latin motto on the reverse of the dollar bill, annuit coeptis "He has approved of our undertaking. "

But it's the real George Washington, the Washington of public and private faith, that historians have mostly not approved of. Authors Ross and Smithlawyers in Dallas and Denver respectively-call attention to the obvious bias in The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick, completed in 1944, which fails to include many of Washington's letters to religious organizations. Even Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., a strong vindication of religious freedom written before the First Amendment was ratified, was buried deep in a footnote. Yet in that correspondence, the new president reminded American Jews that, in this new country, toleration was not an "indulgence" for the lucky or the connected but one of those "inherent natural rights" that patriots had died for. He also made plain that freedom for diverse religious practice is not to be confused with freedom from religious expression by public officials. And so the president closed his letter with an invocation to the Judeo-Christian God: "May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy."

The authors tell us that the public Washington was more religious than the private Washington. In private, for example, he never referred to "Jesus" or "Jesus Christ" nor used such synonyms as "savior" or "redeemer." They add, "There must have been some measure of deliberateness in his decisions to be publicly religious. …

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