The Rushmore presidents' piety

SUN JOURNAL

Faith: The religious convictions of four of our chief executives might raise eyebrows in today's confessional age.

March 18, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Inside the Beltway and out on the hustings, presidents seem to conclude a State of the Union, a stump speech or even a simple press conference with some reference to the Deity.

Modern political discourse, it seems, has entered a confessional age.

Religion played a starring role in the campaign for president. President Bush has given references to God a front-and-center role in his nascent administration.

But not all American presidents have been so comfortable publicly expressing their religious beliefs. And the religious convictions of many of our country's most respected leaders would hardly be considered conventional by today's standards.

Religion and personal faith did play an important role in the lives of the country's presidential icons, those immortalized on the face of Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. But some of their views might raise eyebrows today, as they did among their contemporaries.

Washington could be described as a "conventional Anglican," says his biographer, Willard Sterne Randall, author of "George Washington: A Life." Washington served as a member of the vestry, the governing board, of Pohick Church near Mount Vernon.

But there is a question as to how devout he was. The late historian Douglas Southall Freeman, author of a seven-volume work on Washington's life, wrote that his religious faith consisted of "an acceptance of belief in God and a compliance with the ritual of the church, but no zeal or active faith. Such religious instruction as George received was of a sort to turn his mind toward conduct rather than toward creed."

"I think he was a devout man," Randall says. "But it's a practical, hands-on Christianity of works, not just of faith."

In 1752, Washington became a Freemason, the fraternal society descended from the guilds of the stonemasons of the Middle Ages. He eventually became the nation's highest-ranking Mason.

Freemasonry is not a religion, but its members must profess belief in a Supreme Being. As was the custom, Washington began using the word God very seldom in his public discourse, substituting the Masonic formulations of the Almighty, the Ruler of the Universe, Providence, or the Supreme Being. Washington continued his membership in the Anglican Church - which became the Episcopal Church in this country after 1789 - but from this point, he was rarely seen receiving communion.

During his lifetime, Washington himself became something of a religious figure, a status he actively discouraged. Everywhere he went, people would illuminate 13 candles in the windows of their homes as a tribute to him. There were 13-gun salutes, and many celebrated his birthday as a holiday, even before the end of the Revolutionary War.

Jefferson's ambivalence toward organized religion is much easier to document. He, too, was a vestryman of his local Episcopal church, but like most of the Founding Fathers, he was a son of the Enlightenment and held a deep suspicion of religious power structures and their believed tendency toward coercion and despotism.

"It was an integral belief of the Revolution that America should be different from the corruption of the old world, part of which was corrupt old world religion," says Randall, also the author of "Jefferson: A Life."

That belief led to one of Jefferson's greatest legacies, the separation of church and state.

Jefferson "was not against religion. He was against any one particular religion," Randall says. "He believed that there should be either equality of support of religion for everyone or support for no one."

He led a decade-long battle in the Virginia Legislature, together with James Madison, to stop state support of religion. At Jefferson's insistence, the achievement was listed on his tombstone, second only to his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

In theological terms, Jefferson could best be described as a Deist: he believed in God but had serious misgivings about the divinity of Jesus. As such, he could not be considered a Christian in the technical sense, a fact his political foes attempted to use to their benefit.

During the election of 1800, Jefferson was accused by some Federalist clergy in New England of being an atheist. As evidence, his opponents used a passage he once wrote in which he stated that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

To counter the political damage, Jefferson penned an essay, leaked to a friend for public distribution, in which he praised Jesus as an ethical role model. Later, he would compile a collection of the ethical teachings of Jesus, leaving out the miraculous and otherworldly aspects of the Gospels. Jefferson wrote that his work, in which he separated the useful in Scripture "as the diamond from the dunghill," would prove "that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.

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