Was George Washington a Deist?

I know this question has been bugging some of you for years — was George Washington a Deist? Some want to present him as an evangelical churchman (not an easy task) and others want to claim him as the father of American secularism (an even greater challenge). Many history books and biographies simply refer to Washington, along with many of the other Founding Fathers, as a Deist. While this may well have applied to a character like Benjamin Franklin, it does not fit Washington, whose words and deeds presuppose a God who intervenes in human affairs.

Michael and Jana Novak attempt to set the record straight in Washington’s God, published earlier this year by Basic Books. Novak responds to some early reviews in his column published in the March 14, 2006 edition of National Review. Here is an interesting passage from his column:

What we did prove, and quite conclusively, is that Washington cannot be called a Deist — at least, not in a sense that excludes his being Christian. Although he did most often address God in the proper names a Deist might use — such as “Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be” and “Disposer of all human events” — the actions that Washington expected God to perform, as expressed both in his official public prayers (whether as general or as president) and in his private prayers as recorded, are the sorts of actions only the God of the Bible performs: interposing his actions in human events, forgiving sins, enlightening minds, bringing good harvests, intervening on behalf of one party in a struggle between good and evil (in this case, between liberty and the deprivation of liberty), etc. Many persons at the end of the 18th century were both Christians and Deists. But it cannot be said, in the simpleminded sense in which historians have become accustomed to putting it, that Washington was merely a Deist, or even that the God to whom he prayed was expected to behave like a Deist God at all.

This is a helpful, accurate, and responsible way to set the record straight.