Comparing the Faiths of Presidents Washington and Obama
In my last post I noted, provocatively, that there is more evidence for President Obama’s “mere Christianity,” than for Washington’s.
A commenter challenged me with Peter Lillback’s “George Washington’s Sacred Fire.” I’ve read the book in meticulous detail (all 1200 pages of it). The blog “Religion in American History,” run by college prof. historians, asked me to review the book which I did here. I also reproduced the review at GWSF’s Amazon page.
I’ll let you read from those links my scholarly attack on why I think GWSF fails to prove GW a “mere Christian.” (A “mere Christian” is synonymous with an orthodox Trinitarian.)
The larger story of interest for many may be Glenn Beck’s role in publicizing the book. I got the book when it came out in 2006 and began blogging about it. I don’t know the exact numbers of its original run; I seem to remember it doing well with the “Christian America” crowd (WorldNetDaily et al.). Yet, I never saw it at my local Borders until Beck promoted it.
From Beck’s radio show May 19, 2010:
BECK: Yesterday, it was like 475,000 on Amazon.com. I think it was two or three when I checked.
LILLBACK: Up to two now. Thanks to you. Boy, I’ll tell you, you’re the best publicist in town.
Suddenly I was in demand as Lillback’s most persistent critic on the matter. I don’t think the book is without its merits. It really could have used an editor to pare it down. The book has two theses, one of which I think Lillback easily proves, the other, he does not.
I think I wrote my review in harsh terms because Lillback uses the same polemical rhetoric to attack historian Paul F. Boller (and others) when I see Lillback engaging in many of the same scholarly overreaches for which he attacks Boller. It’s kinda strange. I’ve seen Lillback speak publicly (never live) and he usually comes off as a “nice guy.” But in GWSF he comes off as mean when discussing Boller and other historians.
But what Lillback easily proves (where many modern historians go wrong) is that GW was not a “Deist” as strictly defined (one who believes in an absentee landlord God). GW was a theist, believing in a warm, active personal Providence. (I think I understand why some scholars think of GW as a strict Deist; some of his letters do seem to refer to an impersonal Providence; but others clearly don’t.) To prove this, Lillback can simply quote Washington over and over again.
Besides showing that Washington was more “religious” than scholars have argued, he also shows GW was more “religion friendly,” and many of the folks to whom GW was friendly were orthodox Trinitarian Christians. (The problem is GW seemed “friendly” to just about EVERY religion, except Tory Christianity and that which did not produce virtue.)
But Lillback fails to show, at least from the horse’s mouth, that GW was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. We can study all 20,000 pages of GW’s known recorded utterances (public addresses, private letters). If one puts the words “Jesus Christ” in its search engine we get only ONE result, in an address written by one of GW’s aides, but given under GW’s imprimatur.
To make the case FOR GW’s “mere Christianity” Lillback makes a number of leaps, speculative and for which there are other reasons to doubt, to impute orthodox Trinitarian dogma into GW’s more generic religious talk. (Again, I detail this more in my linked to review.)
[It’s surprising that Glenn Beck so loves this book. I wonder how much of it he read. Lillback’s “thesis one” certainly fits with what Beck believes. But Beck is a Thomas Paine loving Mormon. And to argue “thesis two,” Lillback commonly attacks Paine and affirms a Trinitarianism in which Mormons do not believe.]
Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been far more explicit in affirming (at least something close to) orthodox doctrine. Obama’s Easter Prayer Breakfast is far more explicitly Christian than anything recorded coming out of GW’s mouth:
… But what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.
For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye. The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire. The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves. The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.
We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him. We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity. And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.
And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect. Each of us errs — by accident or by design. Each of us falls short of how we ought to live. And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.
It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption. But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.
Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season. And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion. He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.
“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today. Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children.
So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord. And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer.
Also see Obama’s interview with Christianity Today where he states:
I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. …
[Thanks to reader Michael Heath for the links.]