The shot rang out suddenly, with no warning, whistling across the bright clearing. "Are you shot?" the young man called out, worried about his only companion. "No," came the answer. Within moments, the two men were upon the Indian, who could only struggle under their weight. Although breathing heavily, young George Washington was unscathed — the first among many times that he narrowly escaped death. At such times, he gave thanks to Providence.
This Presidents Day, both parties seem to be competing early for next year's presidential election and vying fiercely for "the God vote." Each of these candidates would do well to study the record of George Washington, our first president, who, more than anyone else, established this nation's traditions for speaking about God. There is much we can all learn from the way that Washington viewed God and liberty, especially at this time when the world around us seems inflamed with religious passions. These days, not every idea of God has the same consequences.
Washington faced more life-and-death decisions than most of us. And while he was not perfect — he was not above impatience, ambition and even arrogance — he more often than not made the right decision. The question is, why? What led him to do the right thing — not for himself necessarily, and not just for the good of the nation (though it certainly was), but in and of itself?
"Washington faced more life-and-death decisions than most of us. And while he was not perfect — he was not above impatience, ambition and even arrogance — he more often than not made the right decision. The question is, why?"
From his days as a 22-year-old lieutenant thrust into leadership on the western frontier, through his experiences as the commander in chief of a rag-tag but determined army facing the strongest army and largest navy of his time, Washington learned invaluable lessons about the character of men and the nature of God. These experiences proved to him that an intervening force was at work in American history and in his life. That knowledge sustained him.
To fully understand, we need to clarify what Washington meant by "God." In public as in private, Washington did not address an impersonal, non-intervening god. Neither did he think of God as a promoter of violence. His prayers expect God to be deeply involved in the fate of nations and especially in the cause of liberty. Though Americans and British worshipped the same God, Washington believed that God favored his nation over that of the British because the American cause was liberty.
This belief led him, just two days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to issue this order to his troops: "The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army. … Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions."
"Today, as our nation faces extremists who threaten our existence because they despise liberty, many Americans still turn to the same Providence that sustained our leader through the tumultuous years of the long, bitter War for Independence."
War is never easy, and certainly the War for Independence was not. It required immense patience and determination. Through the darkest days of the chaos of war, Washington showed his honor, his sense of duty, and, most important, his understanding of the American soul. This is because he, and early Americans, held firm to the faith that God favored liberty. He never doubted. As he wrote after the discovery of Benedict Arnold's treason:
"Happily the treason has been timely discovered to prevent the fatal misfortune. The providential train of circumstances which led to it affords the most convincing proof that the Liberties of America are the object of divine Protection."
In his private letters and public statements as commander in chief and president, Washington seldom missed an opportunity to give praise to Providence and to beg God to continue favoring this nation. In his farewell address, Washington considered his legacy to our young nation and wrote these words:
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them."
Washington's religious behavior, especially as a public official, might displease those today who argue against religion in the public square. Yet it was his trust in Providence that allowed him to be the man that he was, and to achieve what he did. Washington's God, who is active in human affairs, was there at the darkest days of our founding.
As we celebrate the birthday of a great man who made his nation great, a nation that is again facing a great test of patience and determination, we can take strength from Washington's certainty that God always favors liberty.
Michael Novak and Jana Novak are the authors of Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country.
Michael Novak chairs the Social and Political Studies Program at the American Enterprise Institute.
Copyright 2010, USA TODAY, Reprinted with permission