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.
Washington defined a vital, visible public role for religion in the civil polity and simultaneously affirmed a robust policy of religious liberty.
It is fitting that on this Presidents’ Day, a day conceived to commemorate the birth of our first president, we ponder Washington’s sage insights on the blessings of religious liberty.
A Window into Washington’s Views on Religious Liberty
In the days following his inauguration, Washington received a flood of congratulatory addresses from state and local representative bodies, civic and fraternal organizations, and religious societies.
He replied, in Washington’s words, to these “assurances of support” and “friendly congratulations which I have received from respectable characters in every part of the Union.”
In the early days of the republic, responses to constituent letters were a favored and effective vehicle presidents used to communicate to the public on important matters of principle and policy.
Among these exchanges were some two dozen with religious societies and congregations. Washington responded to these constituents with humility, expressing gratitude to his countrymen for their loyalty to both him and the new national government.
These friendly communications open a window into Washington’s views on religious liberty and the role of religion and religious citizens in public life.
Reassurances of Religious Liberty
An August 1789 letter to the Protestant Episcopal Church celebrated flourishing religious pluralism in the new nation:
It affords edifying prospects indeed to see Christians of different denominations dwell together in more charity, and conduct themselves in respect to each other with a more christian-like spirit than ever they have done in any former age, or in any other nation.
He reassured Methodist Bishops a few months later:
It shall still be my endeavor . . . to contribute whatever may be in my power towards the preservation of the civil and religious liberties of the American People.
To Presbyterians he offered this homily on the duties of the pious citizen:
While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences; it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sincerity of their profession by the innocence of their lives, and the beneficence of their actions: For no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.
Reassuring Religious Minorities
The plight of Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and other religious minorities clearly excited Washington’s sympathy for the bigotry and persecution they had endured, and he used letters to these communities to calm deep-rooted fears that religious discrimination would exclude them from civic life and the project of nation-building. Writing to the Virginia Baptists, he reaffirmed that,
Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.
He favored the Quakers with the endorsement that “there is no Denomination among us who are more exemplary and useful Citizens.” Although he candidly took exception to Quaker pacifism, which had frustrated the military commander in the late war against Great Britain, he averred that,
[T]he liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreeable to their Consciences, is not only among the choicest of their Blessings, but also of their Rights.
Roman Catholics, who had long borne the brunt of bitter discrimination in the new world, had reason to hope for a promising future when Washington assured them that all citizens are “equally entitled to the protection of civil Government.”
Religious Liberty versus Religious Tolerance
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.
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.
A Commitment to Religious Liberty
In these eloquent letters, a newly inaugurated President Washington articulated fundamental and enduring principles of religious liberty.
These cordial communications with diverse religious communities suggest an acceptance of religious pluralism, and the substance of these letters reaffirmed a personal and national commitment to religious liberty and sect equality under the law. He also used these letters to quiet the fears of religious minorities that they would be excluded from civic life.
In our troubled times, with religious liberty imperiled by the intrusions and depredations of the civil state, we would do well to reflect on the wisdom of our first president, whose birthday we celebrate this Presidents’ Day, and to pray that our leaders today would affirm Washington’s commitment to the sacred rights of conscience.
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