This week Jewish people around the nation will gather in houses of worship in every state to observe the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. While many may not be aware of it, Jews have enjoyed the freedom to worship in the United States since its inception.
Religious freedom in the new nation had no bigger champion than George Washington.
A year before the first amendment was ratified, George Washington, our nation’s founding president, made clear his thoughts on religious freedom. Washington posited that all law-abiding religions would be respected, and no people living in the United States could be in any way restricted for practicing their religion or no religion.
Today, we are in desperate need of a reminder of our nation’s founding principles.
In 1790, Washington delivered this declaration in an eloquent and historic letter to the tiny Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.
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 those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
This remains as true in 2016 for our Muslim fellow citizens as it was for Jews and Christians in 1790.
Over the last several decades, I have worked to embed Washington’s ringing phrases in our country’s national conscience. Rhode Island is most noted as the place where religious freedom was actually born – created by Roger Williams and John Clarke, who persuaded Britain’s King Charles II to grant the Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663. That charter set forth the first political entity in the world to separate the church from the state. Because Rhode Island was far from King Charles’ shores, the King felt it safe to permit that “lively experiment” to take place.
One hundred twenty-seven years after the Royal Charter, and seven years after the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote to the Rhode Island congregation that worshipped at what is now known as Touro Synagogue. While our first president penned this letter to a small group of Jewish citizens, his message applied – and continues to apply – to every American. That message is, indeed, a banner of our nation’s greatness for all to see.
In his letter, Washington commends the citizens of the United States for “having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation.” He positions the new country as existing beyond “tolerance” for religious diversity; rather, he says the United States represents an acceptance and appreciation of one’s religious practice as an “inherent natural right,” significant and central enough to be written into the First Amendment. The amendment begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
One’s chosen faith has never been a qualifier for citizenship in the United States of America, and never should be.
I have been pondering how our first president would react to what is happening in our country today. What would he say about the fear-mongering and strident divisiveness that are taking place? Don’t we still adhere to “e pluribus unum?” Would he not lament the erosion of civility?
Wouldn’t President Washington remind us that it is our birthright as a nation to be inclusive, to live beyond mere tolerance in respect and acceptance of others regardless of faith and background? To become up-standers rather than bystanders?
I suggest that the best way is to educate our nation’s youth to open their hearts and minds to religious freedom and the blessings of living in a diverse, democratic society. This letter is a marvelous tool for beginning the discussion in the home and in the classroom. As the founder and chairman of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, I have devoted my time and energies to promoting the profound message of this letter to teachers and students, nationally and internationally.
We’re very pleased that the original letter is on long-term loan at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. How fitting that this great letter is situated on historic Independence Mall where our nation was founded and across the street from the Liberty Bell!
We Americans are blessed to have had an enlightened group of founding fathers whose ethics, values and vision for the future of America were of the highest order.
George Washington often closed his correspondence with an invocation from the Old Testament. More than two centuries after it was written, Washington’s 1790 letter and his legacy speak to us all, as he recites from the Biblical prophet Micah:
“…while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Those are apt words for our particularly troubled times. The need has never been more critical; the timing never more urgent. What kind of a world will our children and grandchildren and future generations inherit? The words in Washington’s letter frame our goal as a people and as citizens of the world. We must all do our best to evoke Washington’s assertions, make them part of who we are and apply them at every opportunity in our own communities and across the globe.
Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr. is a former United States Ambassador to Denmark, Delegate to the United Nations and founder of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom http://www.gwirf.org/ .
(For more information and to read the George Washington Letter in its entirety, please reference the Loeb Institute at George Washington University.)