George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

“To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance”

by Michael Feldberg, Executive Director, George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

Copyright ©2012

At Passover, Jews retell the story of their liberation from bondage under the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. Today, for American Jews it is easy to take religious freedom for granted. We learn in school that the first colonists came to America for religious freedom, and that America was founded to defend that principle. But for most of the colonists, freedom was intended only for those who believed in one or another mainstream Protestant form of worship. Jews, Baptists, Quakers and Catholics often were not allowed to worship in public or hold elected office. On occasion, members of religious minorities were banished, whipped or even hanged for expressing their beliefs.

After the American Revolution, the idea that minorities should be allowed to express their faith publicly became more widely accepted. In 1789, the newly independent states adopted a new Constitution. It explicitly allowed persons of any faith, or no faith at all, to hold federal office. The states took longer to abolish their restrictions on religious minorities. In 1790, the Constitution was amended through the addition of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments). The First Amendment begins with the words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor interfering with the free exercise thereof.” Because the Bill of Rights begins with those words, religious freedom is often called “The First Freedom.”

Just before the Bill of Rights was adopted, the nation’s first president, George Washington, traveled to Newport, Rhode Island on a goodwill visit. There, he received greetings from a number of dignitaries, public officials and members of the clergy. Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, was one of those invited to address Washington. (Today, we know the Hebrew Congregation as Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest Jewish house of worship, built in 1763.) Seixas’s statement was an elegant expression of the Jewish community’s delight in Washington as leader and its gratitude for living under a national government that did not persecute religious minorities. Its most important passage referred to the historic plight of Jews throughout history:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

Washington responded to Seixas a few days later. It is perhaps the most eloquent expression of the American ideal of religious liberty ever written by a president.

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.

…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.