Monday, December 15, 2008

What Hath Washington To Do With Northhampton (Or Bush With Westminster)?

In a back issue of Modern Reformation magazine, D.G. Hart reviewed two recent biographies of George Washington (George Washington’s Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback and Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country by Michael Novak and Jana Novak). Hart pointed out a bit of irony that a cynical Gen-Xer like me can really appreciate. After remarking that “Washington's conventional Anglicanism is the main reason for Lillback and the Novaks' joint conclusion that our first president was not a deist,” Hart says:

The effort to recover the orthodox Christian Washington has a remarkable unintended consequence…. In building a case for his exceptional character and integrity, [both authors] mention that “it would be a happy event if all presidents conducted themselves, to at least the extent that Washington did, as good Christians ... in private and in public.”
The argument of Lillback and Novak, then, is that Washington’s devout Anglicanism demonstrates the important and beneficial role his Christianity played in shaping his presidency. Yet there’s a problem.
But in recovering a place for orthodox Anglicanism in the formation of the United States, these authors have also unwittingly undermined the heart religion promoted during the revivals of the eighteenth century that continue to set the pace for American Protestantism. For if Washington's faith was sufficient to pass the litmus tests of orthodoxy and sincerity, then the extra credit demanded by revivalists that believers not simply believe but demonstrate faith visibly in their daily lives was unnecessary. In other words, if Founding Father’s faith was truly Christian, then revivalism’s criteria for true holiness was excessive. Proponents of the Religious Right have rarely seen that to have a Christian George Washington is to ignore an enthusiastic Jonathan Edwards, or that to retain born-again Christianity is to abandon the religion of the founding generation of American statesmen. This is the unintended benefit of these books, an outcome that shows again the curiosities that result from mixing politics and religion.
Darryl is absolutely spot-on here. The Religious Right can’t have its cake and eat it too, for if George Washington exhibited true Christianity then Jonathan Edwards was a fanatic, but on the other hand, if Jonathan Edwards described true Christianity then George Washington was merely one of those cold, dead, unconverted pretenders that Whitefield and Tennant made careers out of denouncing.

We see a similar trend in our own day, albeit in the opposite direction. Confessional Reformed types will argue until they’re blue in the face (or red, to be more precise) about the benefits of having a Christian president like George W. Bush, while at the same time their own confessions describe a Christianity that is churchly and covenantal, and that is characterized by such doctrines as infant baptism, Sabbath keeping, and a high view of the work of Christ (things which President Bush shows little sign of esteeming).

And to add to the irony, the same people who will go to the mat to prove the sanctified status of Washington’s soul stood vehemently against Barack Obama and overwhelmingly favored John McCain, though the latter clearly disliked the Christian Right and the former is a devout church-goer.

Maybe the fact of the matter is that we just like who we like, but we are too incapable of arguing for good earthly policies on their own terms that we need to find biblical justification for every extra-biblical preference we have. If we would only recognize two distinct but legitimate kingdoms, we could save ourselves the hassle of joining together what God hath put asunder.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!