Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Review: "Washington's God" by Michael Novak and Jana Novak

This is a must-read book.

The core of the book is this: What did George Washington, deep down in his own heart, think about God? What "kind" of God did he worship (or did he worship at all)? Was he really a "Christian"?

The book focuses its effort on three central questions: 1) Was Washington a deist? 2) What was Washington's understanding of the term "Providence," a term which he used frequently? 3) Did Washington use Christianity only for civil and political purposes, while secretly maintaining a skepticism toward religion?

The Novaks (father and daughter) do an excellent and thorough job of answering all three questions. First of all, Washington was most certainly not a deist, in any understanding of the term. He believed that instead of God being aloof and "uninvolved" in the affairs of men, that instead God was actively interposing in history, and particularly in the affairs of the nascent United States. Washington appears to have understood "Providence" (perhaps his most frequent term for God) as being the sovereign God Jehovah described in the Bible and believed on by both Christians and Jews. He believed that Providence acted through men and circumstances to attain His Own will on earth. Last, he certainly seemed to be exceptionally consistent between his public and his private lives in his faith, beliefs, and actions, demonstrating fidelity and character in all that he did.

Part of the difficulty of researching the subject and obtaining a solid answer is that George Washington was exceptionally hesitant (by nearly any standard) to share what he believed—doctrinally, at least—in any public way, or even in most of his correspondence. His wife Martha destroyed all of their correspondence after his death, so that avenue of research is nonexistent. Furthermore, it seems that Washington took great pains to keep his religion in the background, so as not to offend any of the various religions in the new country (he, like most Virginians of his time and status, was Anglican); at the same time, he was to all a model "Christian" citizen, exemplifying virtue and upstanding character.

There is a great deal of background given into the religious atmosphere of Washington's day, especially the Anglican faith, and how followers of different denominations did or did not typically display their faith. There are also many quotations from Washington used to give weight to the Novaks' points of view. For those reasons alone, the book is useful.

Most of all, we see Washington as a model Christian, regardless of the specific doctrinal beliefs in his heart (which we will never know here on earth). His virtue and character were observed by many, and even his enemies, like Daniel's, could find nothing with which to accuse him. If we each modeled his character, our country would be so many times better off for it.

Get the book and read it. The Novaks did a great job.

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