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George Washington and Religious Liberty

In his Farewell Address, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.”

Washington and the other Founders knew that religion and morality are necessary for the happiness of individuals and the nation. The Founders agreed with the older or classical view that true happiness is living a virtuous and decent life. They also knew that from a political standpoint, moral virtue and responsibility are necessary if citizens are to live freely under a government of limited power, and that religion is necessary for the cultivation of virtue.

The views of Washington and the other Founders concerning religion and religious liberty will be examined by the following topics:
  1. God and Political Liberty
  2. God and Religious Liberty
  3. Religion and the Moral Conditions of Freedom
  4. Religion and the First Amendment

1. God and Political Liberty

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” The idea that rights are gifts from God -- that humans are “endowed by their Creator” with certain natural rights -- was central to the Founders’ view of political liberty. It is difficult for Americans today, however, to understand how radical this idea was in 1776 (and still is today).

Throughout all human history prior to the American Founding, rights had always been understood as a gift granted to some men by other men, such as a king, pharaoh, or emperor. But if a man, or a government, possessed the power and authority to grant rights, they could restrict them or take them away as well. With such an understanding, there is no argument against a man being governed without his consent, because a man’s rights do not really belong to him, they belong to those in positions of political power.

The American Founders, on the other hand, said that human beings were born with certain natural rights. These rights are not gifts from other men or government, but rather they belong to us according to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as Jefferson notes in the Declaration of Independence. Under the natural law, all men and women are free and equal by nature because all are born equally human beings. Our natural freedom and human equality is a gift from God given to us at birth and cannot be rightly denied or taken away by anyone. In his Summary View of the Rights of British America, written two years before the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson put it this way: “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy, but it cannot disjoin them. ”

The reason all men possess the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the reason why it is unjust by nature for one man to rule another with his consent, is because God has created all men equal, and endowed them with equal rights.

2. God and Religious Liberty

If our liberty is an “endowment,” or gift, from God, then our highest duty in one sense becomes a religious and not a political one. The question that immediately presents itself, however, is the manner of discharging one’s religious duties: Which religion offers the best, or truest way to thank God? In the past, when rights were understood to come from government, the government decided how citizens would worship. When conscientious believers would refuse to participate in the religion sanctioned by government -- because they believed it to be in error on some question of church doctrine or theology -- religious wars were often the result. In Europe, for example, during the two centuries prior to the American Founding, Protestants and Catholics had been mercilessly slaughtered because either they did or did not believe in religious doctrines such as transubstantiation.

The Americans Founders understood that while the basis of equal rights is something we can know by human reason -- human equality and natural rights are rational, self evident truths -- questions of religious faith cannot. There is no rational principle by which government can declare one religion to be the official or true religion and prohibit others. As the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 stated, “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” In the Founders’ view, government must guarantee religious liberty because citizens have a right and duty to give that which they “owe their Creator,” but they cannot force citizens to engage in any particular religion. Rather it is through the free exercise of religion, according to the conscience of each citizen, that we are able to fulfill our duty to God as we understand it, and live peacefully as neighbors with those of other religious faiths.

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