Religious Freedom and the First American President

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 14, 2016

Join us as we begin a series of posts focusing on the prioritization of religious freedom in American law and culture. This week our discussion focuses on the American founding and was initiated with Thomas Kidd’s post “The American Founding: Understanding the Connection between Religious and Civil Liberties.”

By: John Fea

I appreciate Thomas Kidd’s remarks about the Founders’ commitment to religious liberty, and I agree with everything he has written. With this in mind, I would like to elaborate on Kidd’s remarks by bringing some sustained attention to George Washington’s view of religious freedom. 

Upon his inauguration as president, Washington received dozens of letters from American denominations and religious groups congratulating him on his new position. Washington’s responses to these letters reveal both his commitment to the place of religion in the American Republic and his dogged defense of religious freedom. In fact, the cultivation of a virtuous republic through the promotion of religion and the idea of religious freedom were inseparable in his political thought. 

In writing to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, Washington stressed how “the general prevalence of piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy” was essential for “advancing and confirming the happiness of our country.” To the Roman Catholics, Washington wrote that “under the smiles of Divine Providence” the “cultivation of manners, morals, and piety” would lead to an “uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.” 

Washington believed that religion could contribute to the public good. He regularly assured communities of faith that their religious freedom was not in jeopardy. Washington reminded the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, that everyone in America “shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” To the Swedenborgian congregation in Baltimore, Washington wrote: “in this land truth and reason have triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” To the Baptists of his home state of Virginia, Washington affirmed that the Constitution would never “endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society.” He let them know that he would never have signed the Constitution if it rendered “liberty of conscience insecure” or allowed the “horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

Washington took several other steps designed to end religious persecution and enhance religious freedom. For example, amid much protest from Christian clergy, he appointed John Murray, the founder of Universalism, as a chaplain in the Continental Army. While the Continental Army was engaged in Boston in 1775, Washington banned his soldiers from participating in Pope’s Day, a popular anti-Catholic holiday in New England that featured, among other things, burning effigies of the pope. When Presbyterians complained to Washington that the new U.S. Constitution made no reference to God or Jesus Christ, he answered their complaint with a general statement about how the new government would promote morality, assuring Presbyterians that they could expect “true religion” to be advanced in support of this cause.

In the end, we always must remember that George Washington was a soldier and a statesman, not a theologian. His primary purpose was to build a republic, not to offer a theological treatise on religious freedom. Nevertheless, his vision for a strong republic always rested on the role that religion might play in cultivating a virtuous citizenry.

John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. 

This piece was originally authored on May 23, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.