This subject is one of constant debate and discussion, and this is one of those moments in which, for some reason, the discussion is louder than usual. What did the Founders believe and when did they believe it?
Q: All in all, then, would you count Washington a Christian?
A:Not a Deist, certainly. Not a showy, belief-on-his-sleeves Christian, either. Yet he was in fact a pretty serious Christian, going a lot more to church than many of his contemporaries, and being seriously engaged with his time, money, and private devotions. Still, on many occasions, when asked directly, he avoided saying publicly that he was a Christian, or of which confession — perhaps determined not to let his private life become a political weapon. So the evidence on how specifically Christian he was is easy to find in his actions, but hard to find in his words.
One contrast may clarify: Jefferson refused to act as godfather to children, that is, watchful over their religious education, lest that give a false impression. Yet Washington, who was far more careful than Jefferson about such matters, agreed on at least eight occasions to become a godfather to new children of family or friends. He later followed up with gifts of prayer books, and the like.
Was he a Christian? On balance, the evidence says so. But not with verbal proof as solid as a scholar would like.
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is coming out with a new book soon called American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation
In the Washington Monthly, Steven Waldman looks at "The Framers and the Faithful", taking the opportunity to excoriate contemporary evangelicals, particularly in relation to separation issues:
Modern Christian conservatives concede that point and hail the First Amendment, but they argue that it by no means follows that either the Founders or the proto-evangelicals wanted a strict separation of church and state. They point out—accurately—that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights includes the phrase “separation of church and state.” And they argue that what the First Amendment intended to do was exactly what it says—and no more: prevent the “establishment” of an official state church, like the ones that had been prevalent in the colonies up until the time of the revolution. In the book The Myth of the Separation, religious conservative David Barton argues that the Founders simply did not support separation of church and state. Indeed, he maintains, this was a Christian nation founded by Christian men who very much wanted the government to support religion. The contemporary intellectual battle over the role of religion in the public square will be determined in part on who can own the history.
It is ironic, then, that evangelicals—so focused on the “true” history—have neglected their own. Indeed, the one group that would almost certainly oppose the views of 21st-century evangelicals are the 18th-century evangelicals. John Leland was no anomaly. In state after state, when colonists and Americans met to debate the relationship between God and government, it was the proto-evangelica1s who pushed the more radical view that church and state should be kept far apart. Both secular liberals who sneer at the idea that evangelicals could ever be a positive influence in politics and Christian conservatives who want to knock down the “wall” should take note: It was the 18th-century evangelicals who provided the political shock troops for Jefferson and Madison in their efforts to keep government from strong involvement with religion. Modern evangelicals are certainly free to take a different course, but they should realize that in doing so they have dramatically departed from the tradition of their spiritual forefathers.