How does a book become a best-seller? This is a question I often ask myself -- for a variety of reasons. But now here's a question that's even more baffling. How does a four-year-old tome by little-known leader of a Glenside, Pa., seminary, published by a small unknown outfit, dealing with the religious beliefs of a figure who's been dead for two centuries, coming in at a staggering 3.2 pounds in paperback, or 1,208 pages, become a No. 1 best-selling book (currently No. 2) on Amazon.com, ahead of books by Stieg Larsson and Stephenie Meyer, among others?
If you don't know the answer by now, you haven't been paying attention. The simple two-word explanation is Glenn Beck:
Our churches stand for nothing, many of them. I'm begging preachers, you are about to lose religious freedom. You must go out -- America, I want you to buy this book today. This is George Washington's Sacred Fire. I got it last week. It's by Peter A. Lillback. I think it's been out for, since 2006. Sacred Fire. Go out and buy this book today. Get on Amazon and buy it today. Sacred Fire. You will understand the relationship of God and our founders. This guy and the co writer, Jerry Newcombe, what this is is they said all of these scholars, all these books, "Oh, they're just atheists, they're deists, they're this, they're there. They went back and said, really? What did the author say? He couldn't find this in any of his words. Here's 1500 times they said these words. It is such a clear distilled picture of the faith of George Washington.
Peter A Lillback is currently president of the Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, and he was the pastor at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr. In addition to his writings on George Washington and his belief that America's founders didn't intend for a separation of church and state, Lillback -- though not a household name in the Philadelphia region -- has made news here in the past for his involvement in a website aiming to debunk "The Da Vinci Code" as well as showing his paritioners a controversial 2004 pre-election video on the faith of George W. Bush. He's also a signer of the anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage The Manhattan Declaration.
Beck -- as noted here in the past -- has been on a jihad since earlier this year to convert his followers and then the rest of America to his mostly discredited idea that the Founding Fathers weren't just your garden-variety church-going late-18th Century types -- ranging from a few born-again Christians to a lot of Deists and some barely believers -- but rather intended this nation to be built upon a bedrock of Christianity. Like the work of Texas textbook tainter David Barton, whose revisionist pseudohistory is featured in Beck's "American Revival" tour, the Lillback book on the 1st president reinvents Washington as a fiery Christian. In praising "George Washington's Sacred Fire," author Walter A. McDougall writes:
Secular historians ignore George Washington's ward Nelly Custis, who wrote that doubting his Christian faith was as absurd as doubting his patriotism. But they cannot ignore this mountain of evidence suggesting Washington's religion was not Deism, but just the sort of low-church Anglicanism one would expect in an 18th century Virginia gentleman. His "sacred fire" lit America's path toward civil and religious liberty.
But that's not the picture of Washington that emerges from history. In fact, he comes off in most accounts as a comparable figure to modern presidents like Bill Clinton or even Barack Obama -- that is, someone who wanted Americans to live with the kind of higher moral purpose that often stems from religion, but at the end of the day was a political figure and not a religious one.
Some relevant facts about Washington and religion are that he never spoke of Jesus (which wouldmake him NOT like another modern president, George W. Bush) and that he he was committed to the ideals that this new America was a place where all religions are welcomed. He certainly promised Jews seeking freedom of worship here that the United States would "give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
As noted by Americans United for Separation of Church and State:
According to Philander D. Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, Washington was not one to make a public display of his religiosity.
"We do not know exactly what George Washington's religious beliefs were because he was extremely private about them throughout his life," Chase says. "We have not found any instance where Washington used the names 'Jesus' or 'Christ' either separately or together in his personal correspondence, but Washington certainly thought of himself as a Christian. Again, we unfortunately cannot probe but so far into Washington's religious beliefs, because he never undertook to explain or justify them in detail."
That's just it. Washington wanted to keep his religious beliefs private. He didn't believe in using the power of government to impose religion on anyone - unlike the leaders of the Religious Right, who take every opportunity to do just that.
And here's what another Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in his journal in 1800 about Washington's religious beliefs:
"Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Xn religion and they thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.
"I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did."
It's a sin, really. What advocates like David Barton and authors like Peter Lillback, with his 3-pound paperback, do is comb through hundreds of speechs in which this group of very able 1700s' politicians who were the Founding Fathers make unsurprising references or allusions to God or the Almighty, and with a blazzrd of end notes seek to rile the politicized masses in a modern day, narrow-minded "culture war" -- as made clear by The Manhattan Declaration -- that would ironically turn America into the kind of nation that neither Washington nor Jefferson would recognize.
That's why people need to keep fighting the Becks and the other ministers of misinformation for the kind of America the Founding Fathers did want -- where all kinds of beliefs, including non-Christian beliefs and even atheism, are created equal.