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George Washington and Religious Liberty

3. Religion and the Moral Conditions of Freedom

Today, many people think of liberty in terms of licentiousness, that is, the freedom to do whatever one wants. Washington and the other Founders, however, knew that for citizens to live in a free society with limited government, each citizen must be able to control himself; otherwise, we would need a police state -- that is, a large, unlimited government -- to maintain safety and order. According to the Founders (and Abraham Lincoln), there is no right to do wrong. Liberty means being free from external restraints – such as an overpowering and abusive government -- to pursue a decent life for oneself and one’s family. Liberty and happiness are found in doing what is right. As George Washington said in his First Inaugural Address, “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” Liberty does not mean being free to squander one’s energies on reckless self-indulgence. Understanding this distinction is what the Founders understood as the moral conditions of freedom.

Of course, if citizens are to pursue what is good, and avoid what is bad or evil, they must know right from wrong. This requires a certain kind of education. In particular it requires moral education, which for the Founders is the core of civic education. In part citizens will learn these things from the laws of the country. As Washington said, again in his First Inaugural address, “the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” Laws will discourage certain kinds of actions -- such as criminal behavior, or failing to care for one’s children, for example -- because they are morally wrong. At the same time, the laws will encourage other kind of behavior -- such as encouraging men and women to marry and care for their children -- because they are morally right, and because they have a salutary effect on society.

Another way that citizens will learn about the moral qualities of citizenship is through schooling. The Northwest Ordinance (passed by the same Congress that drafted and passed the First Amendment), the first federal law governing the western territories, provided that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” In other words, one of the purposes of schools, including public schools, is to promote morality. And one of the most important ways it would do that was to promote religion.

Washington understood the connection between religion and morality perhaps as well as any of the Founders. For example, he speaks of the importance of religion and morality in a passage from his Farewell Address:

"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. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity."

4. Religion and the First Amendment

Given the importance of religion to Washington and the other Founders, it is difficult to understand the common view today. That view suggests that government should merely tolerate but never support or promote religion. Nothing could be further from the intentions of the Founders, as can be seen by simply looking at the First Amendment.

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” In writing the First Amendment, the Founders had two concerns. The first was that in America there would be no established church like in 18th century Britain, France, and other European countries where one’s political rights were protected only if one belonged to the official religion of the government. But the Founders never for a moment suggested that government ought not promote religion and morality generally.

Many people today think the First Amendment is built upon the idea that there is or should be a “wall of separation between church and state.” That phrase is found not in the First Amendment, but in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote while he was President of the United States to a group of Baptists (who were often persecuted in colonial time for their religious beliefs and practices). Jefferson wrote to assure them that their religious liberty would be protected. But when Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation between church and state,” he did not mean that religion must be kept entirely out of politics, or law. If he had meant that, he would have violated the “wall of separation” at the very time he declared it. For, at the end of the letter to the Baptists, Jefferson, acting in his official capacity as President, concluded with a prayer: “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”

For the Founders, government support of religion is not the same as an “establishment” of religion. How could it be, when the Founders themselves believed our natural rights to be gifts of God? In September 1789, the House of Representatives authorized the first official Thanksgiving. The resolution they passed called for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Moreover, they passed this on the very same day they passed the First Amendment, which said “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Clearly those in the first Congress did not see any conflict between the First Amendment’s prohibition on an established religion, and government sanctioning an official day of thanksgiving to God.

On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued the Proclamation of National Thanksgiving, which reads in part:

"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us."

The second concern for the Founders in drafting the First Amendment was that all citizens should be free to practice their religion freely, without interference from government, so long as that practice does not violate the rights of others or threaten the common good.

Perhaps the clearest example of the Founders’ understanding of religious liberty is their treatment of various Jewish congregations in America. Throughout most of human history, Jews were treated as second-class citizens – if they were granted citizenship at all – in most countries. But the American Founders understood that Jews possess the same natural rights as all other men. So long as their Jewish religion does not violate the rights of others, which it does not, they should be as free to practice their faith as members of any other religion. In August of 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, explaining that “good citizens” (regardless of religious beliefs) will be guaranteed their “inherent natural right” to the free exercise of their religion: “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, 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.”

Discussion Questions:
  1. What did George Washington say in his Farewell Address contributed to human happiness and political prosperity?
  2. How was the Founders’ view of human rights different from the view held throughout most of history?
  3. Why are religion and morality important to citizens living in a free society with limited government?
  4. What did George Washington say in his Farewell Address about the relationship between religion and morality?
  5. What two concerns did the Founders address in the First Amendment?
  6. How did Thomas Jefferson end his famous letter that includes the phrase “wall of separation between church and state”?
  7. What did the House of Representatives do on the same day it passed the First Amendment?
  8. What phrases that express toleration does Washington use in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation?
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