George Washington’s Letter to the Newport Jewish Congregation Marked a New Era of Religious Liberty

Aug. 17 2020

In 1790, the new American republic was home to some 2,000 Jews, out of a total population of 2.5 million. That year, President Washington visited Newport, Rhode Island, where he received a letter from the members of the local synagogue. “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” it read, “we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship.” John Berlau describes the president’s response, which came the next day:

[I]n that letter, Washington promised even more than the religious liberties the Jewish congregation had asked for: that Jews would be full citizens of the new republic. . . . Washington was quick to add, though, that the U.S. Constitution goes beyond mere religious toleration and explicitly grants religious freedom and full citizenship to people of every creed. “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,” he wrote.

Washington then made an allusion to the passage of Micah 4:4 in the Hebrew Scriptures . . . which reads, “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” Washington stated emphatically to the Jewish congregation that in the new nation, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Scholars of religious freedom have called Washington’s letter to . . . the congregation a milestone in human rights. For the first time, members of religious minorities were granted full partnership in the nation they inhabited as a matter of policy, as stated by the nation’s leader. The late political philosopher Harry Jaffa . . . wrote that Washington’s letter meant that Jews would be “full citizens for the first time, not merely in American history, but since the end of their own polity in the ancient world, more than 2,000 years before.”

Jews, however, were not the only religious minority to whom Washington would provide much-needed aid and comfort. In Great Britain and most of her American colonies, Catholics couldn’t hold public office or serve on juries. And in George Washington’s Virginia, Catholics couldn’t even pray publicly during the colonial days. But to Catholics, as to Jews, Washington personified the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom through his words and deeds.

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Read more at National Review

More about: American founding, American Jewish History, Catholic Church, Freedom of Religion, George Washington, Touro Synagogue

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy