George Washington on the subject of religious liberty

Was George Washington our best president ever? I have written before that I thought that he was.

Julia Shaw

February 18, 2013 at 8:20 am

Instead of celebrating George Washington’s birthday, today we’ve lumped him in together with no-names including Millard Fillmore and William Henry Harrison as we celebrate a generic “Presidents’ Day.”

But George Washington was not simply a President. He was the indispensible man of the American Founding. Washington’s words, thoughts, and deeds as a military commander, a President, and a patriotic leader make him arguably the greatest statesman in our history.

All Presidents can learn from Washington’s leadership in foreign policy, in upholding the rule of law, and—especially now—in the importance of religion and religious liberty. While the Obama Administration claims to be “accommodating” Americans’ religious freedom concerns regarding the Health and Human Services (HHS) Obamacare mandate, it is actually trampling religious freedom. President Washington set a tremendous example for the way that Presidents should handle such conflicts.

Washington knew that religion and morality are essential to creating the conditions for decent politics. “Where,” Washington asked, “is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”

Religion and morality are, Washington wrote, essential to the happiness of mankind: “A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”

To match his high praise of religion, Washington had a robust understanding of religious liberty. Freedom allows religion, in the form of morality and through the teachings of religion, to exercise an unprecedented influence over private and public opinion. Religious liberty shapes mores, cultivates virtues, and provides an independent source of moral reasoning and authority. In his letter to the Newport Hebrew congregation—at the time the largest community of Jewish families in America—President Washington grounded America’s religious and civil liberties in natural rights, and not mere toleration.

Washington also confronted the limits of religious liberty. In one letter, Washington praised the Quakers for being good citizens but chastised their pacifism: “Your principles and conduct are well known to me; and it is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say, that (except their declining to share with others the burden of the common defense) there is no denomination among us, who are more exemplary and useful citizens.” Yet Washington ended his letter assuring them of his “wish and desire that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated” to their practice.

Such a true accommodation upholds the rule of law and religious liberty, because it allows men and women of religious faith to follow the law and their faith.

In his letter to the Quakers, Washington explained that government is instituted to “protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression.” Further, it was the duty of rulers “not only to abstain from [oppression] themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others.”

Washington’s advice has gone unheeded.

We are told that religion and politics require a strict separation; that religion is a hindrance to happiness and therefore has been gradually stripped from the public square. We’re told that displays of religious faith don’t support the community but are downright offensive to non-adherents. The Supreme Court has supported and extenuated this tortured logic. Since the 1940s, the Court has put religion and religious liberty into a smaller and smaller box. At best, religion is a private good—but one that and should not be presented to others. And religious beliefs have no bearing on public life.

We can see where this logic goes. Under Obamacare all insurance plans must cover, at no cost to the insured, abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, sterilization, and patient education and counseling for women of reproductive age. Illustrating the Obama Administration’s narrow view of religion, only formal houses of worship are afforded an exemption from the coercive mandate. Many other religious employers such as Catholic hospitals, Christian schools, and faith-based pregnancy care centers are forced to provide and pay for coverage of services that, as a matter of faith, they find morally objectionable.

Even the recently proposed “accommodation” to the rule isn’t really an accommodation. As Sarah Torre explains, the suggested fix “fails to encompass many employers—and certainly all individuals—with moral or religious objections to complying with the mandate.” To comply with the mandate requires religious men and women to violate church doctrine and their consciences. Under President Obama, we have returned to religious toleration, as defined by a bureaucrat somewhere.

Maybe that’s why we shouldn’t celebrate all Presidents equally. George Washington “was the directing spirit without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no Republic,” as one President put it. He set the tone for what the American presidency should be. That’s why he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Julia Shaw is a research associate and program manager in Heritage’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics.

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