As Presidents' Day of 2003 arrives, many in the United States are either pleased or upset that President Bush continues to lean heavily on religious symbolism in speaking about the anti-terror war and many other matters.
But if George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were alive today — or Thomas Jefferson, for that matter — their spiritual beliefs would be far more controversial than Bush's, and not just because times change.
‘The Hand of Providence’
What did these great former presidents believe? Let's start with the first president.
When Washington ran for president, a few opponents tried to sully him as irreligious because he rarely attended services — though he was a vestryman in an Episcopal church in Alexandria, Va.
Supporters answered that the Alexandria church was a two-hour horse ride each way from the general's beloved Mount Vernon, and therefore Washington usually held private vespers at home.
That Washington was a believer can be found in statements such as this, from a 1778 letter about the revolution: "The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith."
Imagine the reaction if any contemporary president declared that anyone who lacks faith is "worse than an infidel," especially since as used by Washington, infidel meant Muslim.
Convinced "the Hand of providence" was guiding the establishment of the United States, Washington joined many of the founders in believing God was forming the new country partly so that people could realize a genuine, freely chosen worship of Jesus, impossible in the entrenched denominational wars of Europe.
To Washington, like many of the founders, civilization and Christianity were the same; it was just that in the Old World, the faith had become corrupted by politics. Without "our blessed religion," Washington said in his farewell address, "we can never hope to be a happy nation."
When Washington negotiated with Indians regarding bringing their children into school systems — one of his pet causes — he did so partly owing to his belief that Christianity was essential to full humanity.
"You do well to wish to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ," Washington once told a gathering of Delaware elders. "These will make you a greater and happier people."
Imagine an American president today who advised minority group members that they must embrace Christ to become "greater and happier."
Yet though Washington's assumption of America as a Christian nation would seem right-wing by today's standard, much of his theology would seem left-wing. Though historians dispute the details, Washington was probably a "deist" — a believer that nature, not revelation or church doctrine, was the proof of God.
Deism was the intellectual theology of Washington's day, best expressed in Thomas Paine's 1794 book, The Age of Reason, which argued that clerics were spewing mumbo-jumbo, and no one can be sure if the Bible is historically accurate, but we can be absolutely certain nature is so grand and intricate it must be the work of a Creator.