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United They Fall, Separated They Stand

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George Washington

-By Contributing Author Dr. Bert B. Beach, Secretary General Emeritus, International Religious Liberty Association

Americans have long seen George Washington, first president of the United States, as a defender of political liberty and independence, and founder of this nation. He merits, however, to also be acknowledged as a proponent of individual religious liberty. Writing November 27, 1783 to the Reformed German Congregation in New York he pointed out that “the establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the motive which induced me to the field”. He thus saw civil and religious liberty as of parallel importance, as he indicated in another letter, to two United Dutch Reformed Churches, November 10, 1783. Rather than discoursing about a plethora of philosophical ideas, like Jefferson or Madison did, he simply demonstrated allegiance to a few fundamental principles. In this short paper we briefly refer to seven of these principles, which have a direct or indirect bearing on immigration rights.

  1. Religious liberty is a right. He did not see religious liberty as gift from government, or a privilege to be granted. He saw it as a natural and inherent right (see letter to Hebrew Congregation, Newport, RI, Aug. 17, 1790).
  2. Religious liberty does not mean opposition between church and state, but cooperation. He said: “While just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support” (reply to Synod of Dutch Reformed Church in North America, Oct. 9, 1789). He felt, as expressed in his Farewell Address, that national morality could not prevail without religion, and religion prospered best when free from government control or establishment.
  3. There is the need for the greatest possible accommodation of conscience. He wrote that “conscientious scruples of all men” are to “be treated with great delicacy and tenderness” and the law should always “be as extensively accommodated to them” as the essential interests of the nation allow (undated reply to Quakers’ Yearly Meeting, PA, NJ, DE, Western MD, VA, Sept. 28, 1789).Religious Library
  4. He stood for respect and impartiality regarding all religions. George Washington saw himself as a symbol of consensus and unity of the nation, including religion. He wanted reason to triumph over bigotry and superstition. At a time when anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism were active, he instructed (September 14, 1775) Col Benedict Arnold, in charge of the expedition to Canada, “to avoid all disrespect to or contempt for the religion [Catholicism] of the country or its ceremonies.” Furthermore, Arnold was to “protect and support the free exercise of the religion” of Canada. Anti-Semitism was not part of Washington’s make up. He wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, August 17, 1790: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”. To the Methodist Bishop of New York he wrote (May 29, 1789): “I shall always strive to prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine vital religion”.
  5. He believed that religion was a private matter, between God and man. Washington kept his own religion as a private undertaking and believed that “people remain responsible only to their Maker for the religion, or modes of faith, which they may prefer to profess” (reply to Quakers’ Address, September 28, 1789).
  6. He wanted to see peaceful inter-church relations and disliked interreligious strife. He felt that the dwelling together in peace and charity distinguished denominational relations in U S from all former ages and other nations (reply to Protestant Episcopal Church Convention, NY, NJ, PA, DE, MD, VA, NC, Aug.19, 1789). He saw the existing harmony between the clergy of various denominations as “the pride of our Country” (letter to clergy of various denominations around Philadelphia, March 3, 1797).
  7. Washington saw the right to religious liberty as involving responsibility. He believed Freedom of religion requires the response of good citizenship and the support of one’s country (letter of reply to Hebrews of Newport, Aug. 17, 1790). He disliked phony religiosity. He wanted to see religion authenticated through worthy citizenship (see reply to Catholic Address, March 15, 1790). There is a problem here: What is “worthy citizenship”? The answer must be somewhat subjective. It seems clear that Washington gave more importance to acts than simply to ideology.

Mount VernonGeorge Washington saw Christianity as the moral backbone of the nation, but he did not see the United States as a “Christian nation” in a constitutional or legal sense. At this time, when Islam is much in the news, it is both interesting and significant to note that Washington signed a Treaty with Tripoli (Barbary States), a Muslim nation. This Treaty states that “the government of the Unites States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion;..it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen….”

The American experience in church-state relations is the reverse of politics and many other domains: “Divided we stand; united we fall.”


By Contributing Author Dr. Bert B. Beach
Secretary General Emeritus, International Religious Liberty Association

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