George Washington and Religious Liberty
This lesson discusses George Washington and the other Founders’ views of the role of religion and religious liberty in the American Founding. The reading examines liberty and the natural law, religion and the moral conditions of liberty, and the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Discussion questions follow the reading.
Students will analyze historical evidence including primary sources to understand George Washington and the other Founders’ views of the role of religion and religious liberty in the American Founding.
National Council for the Social Studies: Thematic Strands I, II, V, VI, X
Arizona Academic Standards, Social Studies: 1SS-E17, E18; 2SS-E3, E5, E7, E8, P1, P5, P8, P10
California History-Social Science Content Standards: 8.1, 8.2, 8.3, 8.4; 11.1; 12.1, 12.2
Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills: Social Studies 8.1, 8.3, 8.4, 8.5, 8.16, 8.20, 8.21, 8.23, 8.26; U.S. Government 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 14, 15, 16
Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: The Free Press, 1996)
James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969)
Daniel Palm, editor, On Faith and Free Government (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997)
Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997)
- Ask students to name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition). Read the religion section aloud: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Ask students why they think the Founders thought this right was so important that they listed it first in the Bill of Rights.
- Explain that the Founders thought that in addition to protecting individual liberty, religion had a public or political purpose. Tell students that the lesson they are about to read will explain the role of religion and religious liberty in the American Founding. Ask students to think as they read about implications for America today.
- Distribute copies of the reading “George Washington and Religious Liberty.”
- Have students work individually or in groups to read the essay and complete the discussion questions. With the entire class, discuss the reading and the student responses to the questions.
- **As an extra exercise, print and distribute copies of Washington’s Proclamation of National Thanksgiving or have students read it online. Have students highlight or list the things from the second paragraph for which Washington said the people should give thanks.