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This year, lots of fireworks over the Founders' faith

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Washington's refusal was temporary and probably reflected his defiance of the King of England, who also led the Anglican Church at the time. That's the view of the Rev. Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., who wrote the 1,208-page "George Washington's Sacred Fire."

But the Rev. Forrest Church, author of the forthcoming "So Help Me God: Presidential Faith and Religious Politics in the Early Republic" and senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, disagrees. He says Washington would awkwardly exit worship before communion for the same reason he seldom mentioned Jesus Christ in correspondence and didn't request a clergyman at his deathbed: "He didn't believe in it."

Such debates are hardly trivial for a nation navigating where religion belongs in public. Washington's support for religious expression, including Catholics and Jews, reflected his Christian commitment to tolerance toward other faiths, according to Bob Morrison, vice president for academic affairs at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Washington. He says even the well-known doubter Thomas Jefferson approved of holding worship inside the House of Representatives and invited ministries to the campus of the University of Virginia.

Public spaces were "very open, very welcoming" to religion in the early republic, Mr. Morrison says. "Now there's a militant hostility to every public expression of faith. I don't see any support among the Founders for that."

Others see the Founders as guardians against an encroaching religious establishment, both in their time and today. "These are essentially secular people who founded our country," says Jo Ann Miller, editor of Richard Brookhiser's "What Would the Founders Do?" Some on the political left say the Founders' devotion to reason first and foremost is crucial to remember in a time when religiously inspired activists try to require critiques of evolution in public schools or to restrict public funding for scientific research, as in the case of embryonic stem cells.

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