We live in a time when religious liberty is more threatened than at any time in living memory.
While courts and commentators turn frequently to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for insights on religious liberty and the constitutional role of religion in public life, largely ignored is the counsel of our first president, George Washington.
The focus on Jefferson and Madison is anachronistic, because to late-eighteenth-century Americans it was Washington who was the most visible and representative founder and, indeed, was considered the very embodiment of American civic ideals.
Religious Liberty is Not Just for Christians
On this past Presidents’ Day, we saw how George Washington affirmed a robust policy of religious liberty, but Washington’s commitment to religious liberty was not limited to Christians. In Washington, American Jews found a sincere friend.
In a 1790 missive to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, perhaps his most eloquent and famous pronouncement on religion, he demonstrated an ability to speak the religious vernacular of his audience.
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham” (Acts 13:26), the president wrote, flourish in this land where everyone, in the words of an ancient Hebrew blessing, can “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid” (Micah 4:4).
More important, he substantively described a distinctively American view of religious liberty:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
This letter is notable for Washington’s clear articulation of America’s greatest contribution to, and innovation of, political society–the abandonment of a policy of religious toleration in favor of religious liberty.
Religious Liberty versus Religious Toleration
The distinction between toleration and liberty is as follows: the former assumes an ecclesiastical and/or political establishment that extends or withdraws permission to practice one’s religion. The latter maintains that the free exercise of religion is a natural, inalienable right possessed equally by all citizens and placed beyond the reach of civil magistrates.
Religious liberty, in short, is irrevocable by the civil state. It is this conception of religious liberty Washington celebrated.
This exchange is just one of some two dozen Washington had with religious societies and congregations. These communications are important for us to ponder as they are a window into our first president’s views on religious liberty and the role of religion and religious citizens in public life.
Editor’s note: This post was adapted from an earlier version published in 2015. We have more content about the blessings of religious freedom! Order a copy of Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All today!