George Washington: on religion and government

George Washington's eminent stature among presidents is attributable, in large part, to the wise precedents that he set - in the relation of the chief executive to Congress and the judiciary, in the conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, and even in the matter of separation of church and state. To be sure, Washington's statements on religion and government do not constitute a major part of his writings, but they are not difficult to find.

For example, Washington throughout his tenure in office referred to the ''Almighty Being,'' ''the Benign Parent of the human race,'' the ''Great Author of every public and private good,'' or ''the Invisible Hand.'' But these references in major documents - from his first inaugural address to his farewell speech - were unaccompanied by specific religious objectives.

Not that Washington was without denominational attachment. He was an Anglican , or Episcopalian, in practice. In spirit, however, he was ecumenical, contributing to various churches and corresponding with such diverse groups as Roman Catholics, Quakers, and Jews, each of whom noted his toleration. Privately a deist - that is, he saw God as a clockmaker whose instrument ran according to laws that man could discern - Washington early on in his public career recognized the pitfalls of espousing specific religious objectives. ''(Shall I) set up my judgment as the standard of perfection?'' he wrote. ''And shall I arrogantly pronounce that whosoever differs from me, must discern the subject through a distorting medium, or be influenced by some nefarious scheme? The mind is so formed in different persons as to contemplate the same objects in different points of view. Hence originates the difference on questions of the greatest import, human and divine.''

It would have been easy for the first President, given his enormous personal prestige, to blend the religious and patriotic fervor that typified the post-Revolutionary years. The Constitution, for instance, could stimulate patriotic pride but was barren of religious principles. In fact, the clause forbidding religious tests for officeholders raised scarcely a stir among the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787, but it rankled a good many Americans, including New Englanders, whose intermingling of church and state would continue in some respects until well into the 19th century.

When Washington toured New England in the autumn of 1789, his first year in the presidency, a group of ministers urged him to recommend the infusion of Christianity into the Constitution. ''We should not have been alone,'' they write, ''in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgement of the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent inserted somewhere into the Magna Charta of our country.''

In spite of the fact that the religious majority in America at the time was overwhelmingly Christian, Washington came down not hard but deftly for separation of church and state: ''... I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta of our country. ... To the guidance of the Ministers of the gospel, this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed - It will be to your care to instruct the ignorant and to reclaim the devious - and, in the progress of morality and science, to which our government will give every furtherance, we may confidently expect the advancement of true religion, and the completion of our happiness.''

Not surprisingly, the matter did not surface again in Washington's presidency , and neither government nor religion would appear impairedas a result.

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