How George Washington Helped America Replace Religious Toleration with Religious Liberty

September 9, 2021 | Daniel Dreisbach
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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.

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