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WebSageRemembering George Washington
The U.S. as a ‘Christian Nation’ and the misappropriation of the Founding Fathers

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Several members of the Texas State Board of Education want to adjust curriculum guidelines to highlight the role of Christianity in American society.

The mayor of Lancaster, California, recently declared that his desert town was “growing a Christian community.”


In his Farewell Address to the nation, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Although these three statements might all seem to be in accord, the “odd man out” is George Washington. The first American president was not advocating an establishment of religion – or anything respecting that end – but rather he was discussing the idea of political virtue, or “republican virtue” – the idea that a society cannot function solely on the construct of its laws; but the good character of its people is necessary to make it work. A good constitution alone is not sufficient.

Washington was convinced, as were many of his contemporaries, that religion was essential to the maintenance of morality. But nowhere in his Farewell Address does Washington denote a specific religion or denomination. Washington understood his role as a unifying figure. Injecting specific religious language into his speech would compromise his message and his position.

Rather than characterizing America as a “Christian nation,” Washington’s meaning leans toward “civil religion” – the idea that the nation has a special mission, sanctioned by God, and the nation’s institutions should be preserved with the same reverence one would apply to one’s faith.

Still, those who advocate a “Christian nation” often appropriate the words of the Founding Fathers to support their position, when, in fact, the Founders meant something quite different.

Washington's philosophy – and how it is applied in modern times – are further examined in the University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray.

“It seems necessary, then, that the history and current concerns regarding religious freedom in America be clearly understood prior to weighing in on the contentious contemporary debates. This is precisely the task of Bruce T. Murray's Religious Liberty in America; one that he accomplishes with impartiality and insight.”
Brandon M. Crowe, Ph.D., School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Arizona State University
(from Reviews in Religion & Theology, History and Sociology of Religion, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Vol. 17, Issue 2, 2010)

Religious Liberty in America is available at numerous university libraries and the University of Massachusetts Press.

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