Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Friday, May 25, 2012

George Washington & Religious Tolerance

I'm a big fan of George Washington.  As a child growing up he was frequently referred to as "The father of our country" in school and now as an adult I see how he created an ethos during his presidency about what kind of country the United States should be that still resonates with us into the 21st century.

I mean, here was a guy that could have been "president for life" and enjoyed all the trappings of monarchy but instead set a precedent of "temporary" power by refusing to run for a third term and shunning many of the indulgent aspects of being the Head of State and Head of Government that he could have demanded.  Only the most secure of individuals voluntarily gives up power after they have achieved it...George Washington was just such a man!

And now a letter he had wrote in his own hand is about to go on public display and it highlights the religious tolerance he envisioned for the new land which still serves as a testimony to the nations of today.  The letter was written to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island and it sought to assure the Jewish population there that they had nothing to fear as they pursued their religion:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

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.

That the United States and her citizens would "give bigotry no sanction" and "persecution no assistance".  As Nicholas Cage says in the movie National Treasure after reading a portion of the Declaration of Independence, "People don't talk like that anymore".

Washington closes the letter (which can be read in its entirety here) by saying:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

"That everyone should sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there should be none to make him afraid".  As someone who gets to travel a bit, I see how most governments in the world still use fear to keep their citizens in line.  Keep them fearful and keep them insecure... Washington in 1790 proclaimed that citizens of the United States would not live in fear...that especially in their own lodging is where they could feel safe.

Most people living in the world today have no such guarantee from their government.

Nicholas Cage was right, people just don't talk like that anymore!


Logan said...

I find the debate over George Washington's personal religious beliefs to be quite interesting: Washington possessed another remarkable ability, the ability to maintain a noble silence on controversial matters, that is equally rare among politicians today. As a result there is a lot of dispute over exactly what his personal religious beliefs were.

In the end though I think whatever Washington himself believed was irrelevant, because he was in many respects personally responsible for the legacy of religious liberty this country has enjoyed-THAT is the part of his legacy that matters. And it was an utterly remarkable, invaluable and yet underappreciated contribution as you pointed out-if only we knew how good we have it here!

Great post!

Steve H. said...

Thanks Logan!

whatever his personal religious convictions were I think even the final paragraph of this letter indicates that he was believer in a arbiter who stood over us and to whom we were ultimately accountable. I think when a president or king "really" realizes they themselves are accountable to a higher authority, it changes their way of leadership.

Logan said...

Oh yes I quite agree with you there-I think Washington had faith in a "providential higher power" for sure and that undoubtedly affected his leadership. Whether he was an orthodox Christian as another matter-I think he was certainly more orthodox than say Thomas Jefferson, but he was the type to obsess over fine points of doctrine-he was deeply grounded yet very tolerant and ecumenical, a perfect combination!