That works only if you don’t know anything about history. The evidence simply doesn’t back up the Religious Right’s claims about our first president. Consider this material, drawn from Brooke Allen’s book Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers:
- “[Washington] paid little attention to the Sabbath or any other outward manifestation of religiosity. We have various eyewitness accounts of life at Mount Vernon which do not much feature religious observance.”
- Ona Judge Staines, who had been a slave at Mount Vernon, did not report a lot of religious activity there: “The stories of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation. Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.”
- As president, Washington attended religious services regularly but more or less stopped once he was out of office. During the last three years of his life, he attended services a grand total of three times.
- Washington’s aversion to communion is well known. When he did attend services, he would routinely leave services before communion was offered.
- On his deathbed, Allen writes, Washington spurned suggestions that he receive a visit from a clergyman. Allen writes, “Washington requested no such supernatural aid in his final hours, though he was well aware he was dying. His last act on earth, in fact, was to take his own pulse, the consummate Enlightenment gesture….”
But what about that famous painting of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge? The painting in question was created by an artist named Arnold Friberg in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial.
It’s based on a story about Washington being seen deep in prayer at Valley Forge that comes from one man, Isaac Potts, who is not considered reliable. In 1918, the Valley Forge Park Commission refused to erect a marker on the spot where Washington allegedly prayed because they considered the story a legend.
But Washington added “So help me, God” to the presidential oath of office! He must have been deeply devout, right?
Once again, there is no evidence that Washington ever did this. We at Americans United got so tired of hearing this story that a few years ago we asked Philander D. Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, to weigh in on the matter.
Here is what Chase said: “[N]either we at the Washington Papers nor any other historians, to our knowledge, have been able to find any eyewitness accounts saying that Washington added the words `So help me God’ to the presidential oath at his first inauguration (or at his second inauguration, for that matter). “
Chase added, “I and some other historians think that, given Washington’s notably strong commitment to adhering as closely as possible to the Constitution, it is unlikely that he would have taken it upon himself to add the words `So help me God’ to the presidential oath.”
The people who live here made this possible: