18 August 1790
While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. 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 they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. 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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
There is a great deal of discussion in the right-wing conservative side of our country about this nation being established as a “Christian” nation. The above letter, sent by President George Washington to the Sephardic Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island emphasizes a consistent theme of Washington’s position on religious liberty which was very consistent not just his presidency but also EVERY PRESIDENT until James Polk when “bible riots” forced the expulsion of Joseph Smith and his Mormons to Utah. Equating any vision of America as a nation with a dominant religious doctrine is not only and afront to the First Amendment of the US Constitution but a direct contradiction of the very words of George Washington when he set a federal precedent for protecting religious liberty and pluralism in the United States.
On August 18, 1790, congregants of the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, warmly welcomed George Washington to both their place of worship and their city. Washington’s letter of response to the synagogue, delivered on the same day, has become famous for reinforcing the ideal of religious liberty in American life. Washington promised the synagogue more than mere religious tolerance, explaining that “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” The letter continued with the promise that “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Washington had a long tradition of ensuring that in his political and military offices, he not only wrote and spoke of religious toleration, he enforced it. When George Washington dispatched Benedict Arnold on a mission to court French Canadians’ support for the American Revolution in 1775, he cautioned Arnold not to let their religion get in the way. “Prudence, policy and a true Christian Spirit,” Washington advised, “will lead us to look with compassion upon their errors, without insulting them.”
This zeal for toleration was also firmly entrenched in the action so of most of our Founding Fathers. In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson had drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions—including those of no religion—in the state. Jefferson famously wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Future President James Madison stepped into the breach. In a carefully argued essay titled “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” the soon-to-be father of the Constitution eloquently laid out reasons why the state had no business supporting Christian instruction. Among Madison’s 15 points was his declaration that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every…man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.”
Madison so strongly believed in a secular government that the US Constitution, unlike the British Constitution, does not mention God or a deity (except for a pro forma “year of our Lord” date) and that its very first amendment forbids Congress from making laws that would infringe of the free exercise of religion. This attests to the founders’ resolve that America be a secular republic. The men who fought the Revolution may have thanked Providence and attended church regularly, but they also fought a war against a country in which the head of state was the head of the church.
Note that in Washington’s address to the Touro Synagogue, he closes his remarks tiht a phrase written specifically to the Jewish tradition but also resonate with Muslims and Catholics (all heavily discriminated against in Europe): “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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
May the New Year find you with a renewed AMERICAN understanding of Freedom of Religion and may we soon overcome this period of using religion as the justification for hateful behavior.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu
May you have a good year, and may you be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.