Radio host Rush Limbaugh, railing against a Newsweek cover that proclaimed "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," called on no less than the Father of Our Country for backup.
Limbaugh was talking to a high school teacher from Rochester, N.Y., on his show April 8, 2009, when he invoked the first president to support the argument that the United States is a Christian nation.
"Now, you've got people who want to conform and not cause any ripples, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, we're not a Christian nation, Judeo-Christian ethic, we are a lot of different religions here,' " Limbaugh said. "You can't read a speech by George Washington, you can't read his inaugural address, you cannot read them without hearing him reference God, the Almighty, and how this nation owes its existence to God and our thanks to God for the vision in founding this nation with people treated as he made them, the yearning spirit to be free and so forth."
To see whether you indeed "can't read a speech by George Washington" without seeing a reference to God, we checked Washington's most noteworthy speeches, starting with his two inaugural addresses, since Limbaugh mentioned those specifically.
The first inaugural address , though lacking the word "God," did contain plenty of references to a deity, such as one to "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe," and a line about how "no people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States."
But Washington's second inaugural address , the shortest on record, had no references to God, direct or indirect.
Nor did Washington's Second Annual Message to Congress, the sort of speech that would come to be known as the State of the Union.
Washington's famous speech at Newburgh to officers of the Continental Army, who were threatening to desert for lack of pay, also contained no references to God other than as an exclamation. "My God!" Washington said in a speech that came six years before he became president. "What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures?" (That, and one other reference to the "God of Armies," were the only two times in the 13 speeches we read that Washington used the word "God.")
So clearly Limbaugh was wrong that you can't read a Washington speech without seeing a reference to God.
It's also worth noting, given Limbaugh's larger point that Washington's religious views support the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, that Washington was hardly a devout Christian.
Peter Henriques, retired professor of history at George Mason University and author of the 2006 book Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington , said Washington's voluminous writings contain exactly one explicit reference to Jesus — when he told the natives of the Delaware Nation a decade before he became president: "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are."
And in Washington's private writings, there's not one specific reference to Jesus, said Henriques, whose book includes a chapter devoted to Washington's religious views.
Washington was fond of religion in general, saying in his farewell address to the nation in 1796 that of all the habits that lead to political prosperity, "Religion and Morality are indispensable supports."
But he was also wary of religious sectarianism. He wrote of how religious disputes are "the most inveterate and distressing," how he feared they would "endanger the peace of society," and how he believed the Constitution established "effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny."
Henriques said Washington was reluctant to spell out his own religious views, partly because he was "trying to be a unifying symbol for everyone."
He believes Washington was best described as a "rational theist," meaning he believed in God and elements of Christianity, "but with a very strong dose of rationalism and reason."
Other scholars label Washington and most of the other founding fathers "deists," meaning adherents of the 18th century movement that believed in God but emphasized morality.
"They were sort of products of the 18th century Enlightenment," said John Ferling, a retired professor at the University of West Georgia whose book, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon , is due to be published in May. "They thought in terms of there being a Supreme Creator who created life and the universe but then didn't intrude in things from that point on."
So Washington wasn't nearly the devout Christian that Limbaugh suggested he was and he did not refer to God in all his speeches as the talk show host claimed. We find Limbaugh's claim is False.
Rushlimbaugh.com, A Teacher on the Smallest Minority , April 8, 2009, accessed April 9, 2009
Bartelby.com, George Washington, First Inaugural Address In the City of New York , Accessed April 9, 2009
Bartleby.com, George Washington, Second Inaugural Address In the City of Philadelphia , accessed April 9, 2009
EarlyAmerica.com, Washington's Farewell Address to the People of the United States , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, First Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Second Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Third Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Fourth Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Fifth Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Sixth Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Seventh Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
The Papers of George Washington, Eighth Annual Message to Congress , accessed April 9, 2009
PBS.org, Rediscovering George Washington, Speech to Officers at Newburgh , accessed April 9, 2009
Library of Congress, George Washington to Continental Army, November 2, 1783, Farewell Orders , accesssed April 9, 2009
Interview with John Ferling, retired professor of history at the University of West Georgia, April 10, 2009
Interview with Peter Henriques, retired professor of history at George Mason University, April 10, 2009
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