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George Washington's Sacred Fire
George Washington's Sacred Fire
Peter A. Lillback
Providence Forum Press, 2006
1208 pp., $39.95

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John Haas

The Greatest Heresy?

George Washington as civil-religious saint.

Compared with an Indonesian author's 5,000-plus page biography of Barack Obama, Peter Lillback's book is relatively modest. George Washington's Sacred Fire is only 1,179 pages. But then, Lillback isn't intending a full biography. His goal is primarily to investigate George Washington's religious beliefs, specifically, to demonstrate that the first president was an orthodox Christian of the low-church, Anglican variety. Published in 2006 to a modest reception, the book's sales sky-rocketed after the author's appearance on Glenn Beck's show, and has been a bestseller since.

At its core, Lillback's book is an attempted refutation of George Washington & Religion, by Paul Boller, Jr. Boller's 1963 effort focused—as one would expect in the wake of the Kennedy election and the controversies over school prayer—on Washington as an advocate of religious liberty. "Broadly speaking, of course," Boller claimed, "Washington can be classified as a Deist." Lillback quotes this judgment of Boller's repeatedly (the index, by the way, is not reliable), but he fails to note that Boller also insists Washington should not be lumped with his more heterodox contemporaries, Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine; that Washington was "no infidel"; that Washington "had an unquestioning faith in Providence"; that his professions of faith were "no mere rhetorical flourish … designed for public consumption."

Lillback ignores all this nuance because he's convinced Boller's book was a turning point in the national understanding of Washington. Until comparatively recently there was no controversy over Washington's orthodoxy, Lillback thinks. That changed around the middle of the 20th century, when revisionist scholars began "to tear down the traditional understanding of our nation and its origin." "The re-creation of George Washington as a Deist," he adds, "has been considered necessary by secular historians in order to create a secular America." Boller, it seems obvious to Lillback, was part ...

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