On February 20, Americans will pause to honor and remember our first president. A man of unmatched character and integrity, George Washington set the tone for the nation’s highest office; he set the bar high.
After leading the nascent country to victory over the British, Gen. Washington laid down all claims to political power. Then, upon his unanimous election as the country’s top executive, he rejected the moniker of king, instead embracing a new title — President. After concluding his second term in office, Washington again laid aside control to make way for the peaceful transfer of power, establishing a tradition that has distinguished America among nations for more than two centuries.
Perhaps the most enduring and essential contribution Washington imbued in the American psyche, however, was the embrace of religious freedom as an inviolable human right and a core value for our nation.
In his Letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island in August 1790, Washington gave voice to two fundamental tenets of American democracy: the separation of church and state, and the right of individuals to follow their own beliefs in matters of religion. The letter was penned in the context of a national dialog to ratify ten amendments to the newly adopted Constitution aimed at guaranteeing certain personal freedoms and rights.
On the occasion of Washington’s visit to Newport, the leader of the town’s Jewish congregation, Moses Seixas, expressed hope that respect and tolerance would be granted to all citizens of the new nation, regardless of religious beliefs and backgrounds. Washington responded in part:
“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.”
Washington’s words give depth and dimension to our understanding of the universal right — freedom of conscience — acknowledged and enshrined in the First Amendment.
For more than 225 years, America has stood as a beacon of hope against the persecution of religious conviction. Yet today, more than five billion of the world’s people are subject to religious persecution in places such as North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Iran. In Nigeria, Boko Haram and Fulani militants have murdered or displaced millions of Christians and minority Muslims. Some 500,000 Syrians have been slaughtered and millions more forced to flee religious persecution and sectarian violence. Iraq’s ancient Christian community and its ethnic minorities are on the verge of extinction.
As we reflect this President’s Day on the legacy of George Washington and how best to reach out to the world’s persecuted, Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, offers an important reminder: “There is only one permanent guarantor of the safety, security and survival of the persecuted and vulnerable. It is the full recognition of religious freedom.”
Erin Rodewald, special contributor
1. Attend the 6th Annual George Washington Lecture, featuring remarks by Walter Russell Mead on Washington’s legacy of religious liberty and the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Jewish people.
2. Read Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregations and learn more about his role in framing American sensibilities about religious freedom at George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom.
3. Sign up to receive regular updates from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).