Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State by Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith

The authors of this calmly argued and well sourced book, Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State, are not likely to appear on any of the cable gab fests any time soon despite the relevance of the subject matter. Their book lacks the hyperbole and controversy those shows thrive on. From my perspective this is a compliment – not that I don’t enjoy a good polemic now and again – but if it means that the book’s subject fails to spark a discussion then it is a shame. Because the history the authors lay out deserves wide distribution and debate.

The flap jacket copy succinctly explains what this book is about and why it is important:

No American living in 1800 would have predicted that Thomas Jefferson s idiosyncratic views on church and state would ever eclipse those of George Washington let alone become constitutional dogma. Yet today’s Supreme Court guards no doctrine more fiercely than Jefferson’s antagonistic wall of separation between church and state. Washington’s sharply contrasting views, explored in this path-breaking new book, suggest a more reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment, one that is consistent with religion s importance to the enterprise of democracy.

The most admired man of his age, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and was president when religious freedom was enshrined in the Bill of Rights. His claim to constitutional authority is considerably more impressive than the brilliant but eccentric Jefferson’s. Washington considered religion essential for the virtue required of self-governing citizens. Though careful not to favor particular sects, he believed that a democracy must not merely accommodate religion but encourage it.

This is one of those situations that can beggar the imagination. After a particularly bitter battle for the presidency Thomas Jefferson writes a political letter to the Danbury Baptists advocating his position that there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state. The letter is controversial at the time and by no means taken as definitive. Hundreds of years later the Supreme Court plucks Jefferson’s phrase out of history and soon it becomes accepted as if it were enshrined in the constitution itself. And George Washington’s far more pertinent and experienced views have faded from public consciousness.

Ross and Smith aim to start the hard work of overturning this state of affairs. They calmly and patiently outline in clear prose how Washington had a great deal of experience as a military commander, legislator, and as president with the questions surrounding church and state relations. They show how he developed a highly pragmatic view that sought to balance the critical and necessary role of religion in American life and government with the important principal of freedom conscience and the need for social comity.

Contrary to the near hysteria many have about any connection between church and state, or religion and state, Washington saw religion as a public good and thus something that government would be wise to promote. He had no problem with the religious symbolism and public religion that the courts have nearly outlawed in our time. He supported public funding of military chaplains, federally printed Bibles for soldiers, and even the financial support of missionaries to the Indians. These views both pre-date and post-date the ratifying of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In the first section of the book, the authors outline Washington’s perspective and positions in his various roles from regimental leader to legislator to president. In the second section they reproduce Washington’s letters, speeches, and official documents that touch on church state relations. The combined sections form a restrained yet powerful argument for a re-evaluation of this contentious issue.

The author’s basic question is this: Why are the views of the much revered and respected Washington not part of the discussion on this critical topic?

This is a question well worth asking. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for a wider debate, because a willingness to ask the question risks the abandonment of some very closely held dogma regardless of its lack of historical or legal foundation.

For more on this see my podcast with the authors.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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