In recent years, as religion has become an increasingly important factor in both domestic and foreign politics, some pundits have speculated that we are in the middle of a third Great Awakening. This sounds more like a journalistic buzzword than an actual social transformation. There is little sign that our deeply secular culture is undergoing the same kind of tectonic shift that took place in the 1730s, when Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield transformed New England Calvinism, or the 1820s, when evangelical sects redefined the terms of American Protestantism. But it does seem true that today religion is discussed more openly in mainstream culture than it has been since the 1960s.
The question is whether this development is healthy, the expression of a traditional and benevolent American piety, or threatening, driven by a politically doctrinaire fundamentalism. After all, America has always been a religious country, exceptional for its high rates of churchgoing and the biblical inflections of its public language. Religion - and in America that has always meant, primarily, Protestant Christianity - has donated its energies to the best causes in our history, from abolition to the civil rights movement. It has also been enlisted in some of the worst - slave owners clutched their Bibles, too. This dual inheritance makes today's religious revival, if that is what it is, hard to diagnose. When we talk about American religion, do we mean a tolerant, pragmatic faith that recognizes the importance of diversity, or a proselytizing dogma that seeks to ban evolution from the schools?
Two new books reflect our current questions about religion, and offer some contrary answers. "Washington's God" (Basic Books, 282 pages, $26), by the prominent Catholic intellectual Michael Novak and his daughter Jana Novak, is not a serious work of history. It falls rather in the Parson Weems tradition of Washington biography, using the father of the country as a blank screen on which to project desires and fantasies about the country he fathered. In the Novaks' case, this means claiming Washington as a "believer," no matter how elusive the contents of that belief, or how little it resembles what most Christians today would recognize as Christianity. For reasons the Novaks themselves never quite explain, they write with an urgent sense that Washington must be saved from the secular humanists and placed permanently under the sign of the cross.
The Novaks are far from the first writers to be unsettled by Washington's reticence about religion. Ever since his legend took shape, pious patriots have tried to impute to Washington the strong Christian faith that he signally declined to display. The Novaks quote one Presbyterian minister who insisted, two weeks after Washington's death in 1799, that "General Washington was a uniform professor of the Christian religion." But the very need to make such a claim, and the extreme paucity of the evidence the minister was able to adduce (e.g., "he steadily discountenanced vice"), suggest the strength of the opposite case. In fact, from a combination of political prudence, personal reticence, and Anglican reserve, Washington never spoke publicly about his beliefs. He always declined opportunities to declare himself a Christian, and the words "Jesus Christ" came from his pen only once, in a message to an Indian tribe.
If he was not a pious Christian like Alexander Hamilton, however, he was also not a bold freethinker like Thomas Jefferson. The main impression one gathers from the Novaks' research and quotations is that, like most worldly men of the 18th century, Washington simply didn't care much about religion one way or another. He accepted Christianity as an important source of republican virtue, and he conscientiously performed his duties as a Virginia gentleman, going to Sunday services and serving as a parish vestryman. But when he died, it was as a Roman Stoic, not as a Christian hoping for an afterlife: No minister was summoned, no prayers were read.
In the absence of any private spiritual testimony, then, the Novaks' case for a pious Washington rests almost entirely on his public addresses as general and president, in which he regularly invoked Providence. Based on a very rudimentary explanation of the principles of 18th-century deism, the Novaks reductively argue that a thoroughgoing deist would find Providence an inadmissible concept; ergo, Washington must have believed in the Judeo-Christian God, the God of the Bible, who arranges history to accomplish his own ends.
The Novaks even endorse the notion that God directly intervened in Washington's life to ensure the success of the American Revolution: "When French troops and Indian braves, rifle men who seldom missed, fired at Washington on horseback again and again and never hit him. ... one does not want to leap and claim 'miracle.' Yet the event does seem to reach beyond the ordinary."This is practically Weemsish in its credulity, and as always with such claims of special Providence, one wonders why the Novaks are not bothered by the implication that God did not care enough about, say, the American Indians to keep them from being exterminated by the millions.
The interesting question about "Washington's God," then, is not how the Novaks try to convince us that Washington was a believer, but why they think it important to do so. They are never completely explicit on this point, but the whole burden of the book is that Washington would be less estimable, less the complete American hero, if he were not a Christian. Perhaps they are even threatened by the suggestion that a heroic character like Washington's could exist without religious support, a standing rebuke to the favorite anti-atheist argument that, without God, everything is permitted. By the time the Novaks announce, with astonishing hubris, that "if we were with St. Peter, we, too, would be inclined to wave Washington through," there can be no doubt that "Washington's God" is closer to a religious apologia than an objective biography.
If the Novaks' vision requires America, in the person of its greatest Founder, to be Christian, Cathleen Falsani's "The God Factor" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $24) brings reassuring news about Americans' tolerance for religious pluralism. Ms. Falsani is a religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, whose beat involves interviewing newsworthy figures about their spiritual beliefs. "The God Factor" collects and expands on those interviews, allowing a wide range of famous people - actors, athletes, writers, politicians - to explain what God and faith mean to them.
Ms. Falsani's workmanlike profiles are not long enough to delve very deeply into spiritual questions, and she never challenges her subjects, even when they are as shallow as, say, the celebrity Kabbalist Sandra Bernhard. (The recent Kabbalah craze has never been better damned than by Ms. Bernhard's praise: "I'm the same way about a new product. If I find something I like, I'm like, 'Oh my God! I found this product and you have to try it.'") But simply by giving people a forum to free-associate about their beliefs, Ms. Falsani performs a valuable service. She shows that, beneath the pundits' and sociologists' simple labels - Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, atheist - lies an extremely fluid reality.
Very few of the people we meet in "The God Factor" enjoy the certitude of the Nigerian-born basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon, who says that "Islam defines a lifestyle for a Muslim, so you don't have to go out on your own to find out and make mistakes. It takes all the guesswork out of the picture." Mr. Olajuwon's regimented, scriptural faith - even his diet is based on the Koran - is, in fact, just the kind of thing that most of Ms. Falsani's subjects flee from. Senator Obama, a born-again Christian, says, "I think that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt." Nor do these believers feel any attraction to the ideas of sin and damnation. The actor John Mahoney is a practicing Catholic, but says, "If I had children, what I would mostly want them to understand is exactly the opposite of what I was taught when I was a kid. I'd want them to know that they will always be forgiven, that they will always be loved." Above all, they insist on the right to decide spiritual matters for themselves, drawing on any combination of traditions they want: The writer Sandra Cisneros calls herself a "Buddhalupist," combining Buddhism with traditional Mexican reverence for the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Ms. Falsani's interviewees are not typical Americans, of course. They are all famous and well-to-do, and their cosmopolitan tolerance probably owes something to their privilege. But beneath their celebrity, and their occasional narcissism, lies a vision of faith that does seem genuinely American: pragmatic, experiential, internal, more interested in love and forgiveness than judgment and punishment. More of this kind of faith, at least, can't hurt the republic.