WASHINGTON – This Fourth of July, Americans not only can celebrate their independence but also their religious liberty, thanks to our founding fathers.
The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations and Washington's God both illustrate the truth about the Founders' faiths and religious beliefs.
James Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, is the editor of The Founders on Religion.
He spoke at a luncheon on Capitol Hill at the Rayburn House Office Building June 13.
Hutson said many books of quotations only mention one or two things about the founders' religion and try too hard to make a case for what they believed by using anecdotes that are false, which he said damages the credibility of what is true.
The Founders on Religion is a byproduct of a 1998 exhibition at the Library of Congress: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, which Hutson put together.
In it, he showed that the Founding Fathers were Christian and that religion was indispensable to the nation's institutions.
"(The founding fathers) were idiosyncratic," Hutson said in his talk.
For instance, he said, John Adams was a Unitarian and George Washington was an Episcopalian who believed in providence – a guiding power of an invisible hand. Washington was also a Mason, as were many Christians in his day.
Hutson searched for figures who represented religious views of people at the time. Seventeen people are quoted in the book.
In addition to the founding fathers, Hutson quoted some lesser known figures, such as John Dickinson, who was president of Delaware in 1781 and Pennsylvania in 1782, and Benjamin Rush, one of the most influential physicians and social reformers of the Revolutionary period.
Some of them had opinions about Catholicism.
"I have long been decided in opinion that a free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or country," Adams said to Thomas Jefferson as quoted in Hutson's book.
In Washington's God, co-authors Michael Novak and his daughter, Jana, both Catholics, examine the way Washington spoke of God and providence. They also debunked the myth that Washington was a deist. Deists reject revelation or authority as sources of belief, believing in God purely on rational grounds.
"A deist," Novak said, "is someone who believes, 'Well, God may have created the world but he doesn't really take sides. He really doesn't interfere in individual lives. He starts the world and lets it go.'"
Washington respected all religions and didn't criticize anyone because of what they believed, according to Novak's book.
When Washington asked Maryland politician Charles Carroll what Catholics hoped to gain from their newfound freedom, Carroll responded that Catholics wanted to be free from religious tests for public office, Novak said in a June 16 interview.
Carroll was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and worked to win political and civil rights for American Catholics.
Novak said an example that illustrates Washington wasn't a deist comes from when he was general of the Continental Army – he encouraged his men to pray for the assistance of divine providence in their duties.
Belief in providence helps one understand his or her success is owed in part to God, "and it tempers the bitterness of defeat," said Novak, who holds the George Frederick Chair in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
Another piece of evidence is when Washington accepted the offer to be the godfather of eight children of Christian parents, Novak said. He took on the responsibility of providing them with a Christian education and sent them prayer books as well as other signs of his Christian faith, he said.
"This is significant," Novak said. He also noted that such terms as "under God," which was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, really "begin with Washington."
Abraham Lincoln, who was a student of Washington, used "under God" in the Gettysburg Address.
"The phrase 'under God' ties us to... early historical moments," Novak said. "And it's main point is there are limitations on government."
"Both men recognize that they aren't the controller of events, they aren't the disposer of events," he said. "They depend very heavily (on) divine providence. So the use of the phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance has tremendous historic resonance."
"(The words) show that there are some things beyond the government's control, the government cannot do," Novak said. "And therefore the government is always under judgment about how it uses its power. It's a great barrier against totalitarianism."
Washington fought to defend religious liberty because no state has the authority to control conscience, Novak said.
The America of Washington's era held religion and freedom in the same regard.
The great Christian preachers were in favor of independence, Novak said. People didn't need to be intimidated by each other because they all had the same rights by the same God, he said.
"That's why Washington insisted on public prayer – to keep people faithful to that and behaving in light of that," Novak said. "They're asking God's favor – they better behave like God's people."
Washington believed there are some things that go beyond human understanding, according to Novak.
By that, Novak said, he meant that just because something disappears, such as the sun behind a cloud, doesn't mean one should stop believing in it.
"As we face the court threats against 'In God we trust' and 'under God,' it's important to go back (and study) Thomas Jefferson and Washington and James Madison," Novak said. "It's a violation of American history not to see... the great role that religion played in giving people courage and direction in fighting for liberty."
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops