George Washington envisioned an America where people of all faiths could enjoy peace. He wrote to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (1790): “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
And he also spoke of the need as a nation to ultimately imitate the Savior. For example, in June 1873, Washington, then the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, wrote a famous letter to the thirteen states, called the “Circular Letter Addressed to the Governors of all the States on the Disbanding of the Army.”
At the end of that letter, he makes a prayer. A prayer that today would be politically incorrect in part because of its reference to Jesus. He says we can’t be a happy nation unless we imitate Him.
This is exactly how he worded it:
“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field…”
Washington goes on in his “earnest prayer” to mention Jesus (whom he calls “the Divine Author of our blessed Religion”): “and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Let’s break this down into modern English.
He is praying that God would be pleased to protect each state and that He would allow citizens to obey the state and to love one another and to especially care for those fellow Americans who “served in the Field,” i.e., the soldiers who have made our freedom possible.
Then he echoes words of Micah 6:8 (from the Old Testament): “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Washington prays that our citizens will: do justice, love mercy, show the love, humility, and peacefulness of Christ. If we do not humbly imitate Jesus’ example, says Washington: “we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Thus, one of the great things we can learn from the father of our nation is that the more the nation imitates Jesus, the happier we will be.
This is not the only place where George Washington spoke of the importance of imitating Christ. For example, in 1779 a delegation of Delaware Indian Chiefs came to see him and ask him how their young men could learn from the ways of the British settlers.
Washington told them, “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.” He added an interesting post-script to his message: “Congress will do everything they can to assist you in this wise intention.”1
But surely this flies in the face of the “separation of church and state”—someone may object.
The idea of the “separation of church and state” (especially the separation of God and State) was not the prevailing view during the founding era. The so-called “wall of separation” is a recent invention. The founders did not want any one Christian denomination “by law established” to be our national state-church—and—they certainly didn’t want atheism (essentially unknown to the vast majority of them) to be our national “religion.”
It’s well-known that today you can hold up Christians—evangelicals, fundamentalists, or Catholics—to ridicule, but virtually no other subgroup.
In other words, their understanding of tolerance demands that they be intolerant of Christians. In short, they abhor bigotry of any kind, except when it applies to conservative Christians, who, they believe, somehow deserve to be discriminated against.
Question: Are we imitating Jesus as a nation, as the father of our country recommended? No. Question: Are we a happy nation? No. Any questions?
- John Rhodehamel, ed., George Washington: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 351. [↩]