How George Washington Helped America Replace Religious Toleration with Religious Liberty

Sept. 9 2021

In his famous letter to the Newport synagogue, the first chief executive of the United States expressed his aspiration that the newly founded republic would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” This missive was one of about two dozen he addressed to a variety of congregations, including three separate letters to America’s small but already fractured Jewish community, who had sent him congratulations on his inauguration. The correspondence—some of which was addressed to such groups as Quakers and Roman Catholics, who had recent experience with discrimination—outlines a doctrine of religious liberty that in Washington’s own words to the Jews of Newport, was more than “mere toleration.” Daniel Dreisbach explains:

The letter [to the Jews of Newport] is notable for its clear articulation of America’s great contribution to, and innovation of, political society—the abandonment of a government policy of religious toleration in favor of religious liberty. This principle was first expressed more than a decade before [by] a young James Madison.

Toleration, to be sure, is a commendable private virtue. Madison, however, objected to a government policy of toleration, because it dangerously implied that religious exercise was a mere privilege that could be granted or revoked at the pleasure of the civil state, and was not assumed to be a natural, inalienable right possessed equally by all citizens, placed beyond the reach of civil magistrates, and subject only to the dictates of a free conscience.

But Madison’s idea of a right to practice one’s religion freely was only one part of Washington’s thinking about the intersection of politics and theology:

Few Americans in the late 18th century, even among those who opposed a state church, doubted that religion made an important contribution to their political experiment in republican self-government and liberty under law. There was a consensus that religion fosters the civic virtues and social discipline that give citizens the capacity to govern themselves.

No one expressed this view more famously or succinctly than Washington in his Farewell Address to the nation in September 1796: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he wrote, “Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Emphasizing the point, he continued in the next sentence: “In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens.” . . . As if anticipating the debates of a later secular age, Washington then proceeded to cast doubt on the supposition that morality could be maintained in the absence of religion.

Washington’s argument did not call for a legally established church, but it did require an environment in which religion could flourish.

Read more at Mount Vernon Magazine

More about: Freedom of Religion, George Washington, James Madison, Religion and politics


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount