To Bigotry No Sanction
Inevitably, some individuals will have personal feelings of dislike, distrust and even hatred of the religious beliefs of others. In 1792, Washington wrote to a correspondent, “Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing.” However, he makes it clear that government policy, at least in the United States, must never be shaped by religious intolerance. Writing in 1789 to a group of Quakers seeking assurance that they would not be oppressed by the newly-reconstituted national government, Washington said, “Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of Rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but according to their stations, to prevent it in others.“
In his Letter to the Hebrew Congregation, Washington specifically uses the terms “bigotry” and “persecution.” Bigotry is stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief or opinion that differs from one’s own. Persecution is the maltreatment of others based on one’s bigotry, such as denying another the right to practice his religion because of your inability to abide the differences between that religion and yours.
We know that Washington fell short of his own ideals when it came to questions of race and slavery. He appears hypocritical in saying that the government of the United States gave no support to bigotry and persecution when it enshrined slavery in the Constitution. Nonetheless, he was sincere in regard to liberty of religious conscience. We support his ideals regarding religious freedom even as we regret and condemn his racial views.