Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State

By Tara Ross
& Joseph C. Smith, Jr.


Does the U.S. Constitution require a “wall of separation” between church and state, as Americans have so often been told? The Father of the Country, George Washington, would have said “no,” as Ross and Smith illustrate in this path-breaking book.

From the Inside Flap

No American living in 1800 would have predicted that Thomas Jefferson’s idiosyncratic views on church and state would ever eclipse those of George Washington let alone become constitutional dogma. Yet today’s Supreme Court guards no doctrine more fiercely than Jefferson’s antagonistic wall of separation between church and state. Washington’s sharply contrasting views, explored in this path-breaking new book, suggest a more reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment, one that is consistent with religion’s importance to the enterprise of democracy.

The most admired man of his age, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and was president when religious freedom was enshrined in the Bill of Rights. His claim to constitutional authority is considerably more impressive than the brilliant but eccentric Jefferson’s. Washington considered religion essential for the virtue required of self-governing citizens. Though careful not to favor particular sects, he believed that a democracy must not merely accommodate religion but encourage it.

Ross and Smith combine a study of Washington’s thought with a copious appendix containing the full texts of his letters, speeches, and official documents on issues of church and state. They present his views chronologically, devoting a chapter to each stage of his career: young regimental officer, colonial legislator, commander in chief of the Continental Army, head of the Constitutional Convention, and president of the United States. An epilogue explains how Jefferson’s separationist perspective achieved its disproportional influence on the modern Supreme Court.