As new leaders work to shake off the bonds of dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, questions about the place of religion and its role in government have sharpened worldwide.
These questions are nothing new. They arose in the American Revolution, and during the French Revolution a decade later. While marveling at the courage of today's protesters, commentators wonder what kind of political arrangements will replace authoritarian rule. Will new governments protect religious minorities? What rights will nonbelievers be granted?
Indeed, how can a government protect freedom of religion without undermining democratic principles?
In the changing global landscape, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, those from other religions, and those belonging to no religion, find themselves living alongside neighbors whose beliefs and practices are often quite different than their own. Despite this new proximity, recent polling by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life  confirms that we don’t know much about each other’s traditions.
“One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of this illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism,” explains Harvard Divinity School professor Diane Moore. As educators, we must better prepare our students to understand the relationship between group and national identities in our globalized world.
One landmark, and yet often under-taught, story educators might use to begin this exploration is George Washington’s 1790 "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island ." "It's the most eloquent statement perhaps in our history of religious tolerance,” said Ron Chernow, whose “Washington: A Life ” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
On a hot, muggy morning, August 17, 1790, George Washington arrived in Newport by packet ship. In May, after long debate, the Rhode Island legislature voted 34-32 to ratify the new federal Constitution, becoming the last state in the union to do so. At the heart of the legislature’s heated debate was the issue of religious freedom in the new nation.
Washington arrived in the seaport town accompanied by a crew of notables, among them his secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, New York governor George Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court justice John Blair, and South Carolina congressman William Loughton Smith. They, in turn, were greeted by Newport’s luminaries – politicians, business leaders, and clergy. Together they gathered on the second floor of a red brick custom house—then serving as Rhode Island’s state capital— where selected representatives from the community addressed the president. Among them was Moses Seixas, who read two letters that day. He presented the first one as the Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Rhode Island, and the second as the warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.
It’s hard to imagine just how unusual the situation was: a Jew, recognized as one of the community’s civic leaders, reading a public letter to the nation’s new president. After all, the families of many of Newport’s Jewish population had come to America to escape centuries of persecution in Europe. Jews had been expelled from England as early as 1290; forced to leave Spain in 1492; and kicked out of Portugal four years later.
Perhaps Moses Seixas’s opportunity to bring greetings to Washington in 1790 could only have happened in Rhode Island. Roger Williams, a man considered a heretic by most of his peers, had founded the colony in 1636 as a haven for religious dissenters. King Charles II of England finally granted the colony a charter in 1663. The document promised:
No Person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called into question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion
Outside of Rhode Island, freedom of religion for non-Christians in the colonial period was hardly a given. In fact, freedom of religion for many non-majority Christians, including Quakers, Baptists, and Catholics, was itself quite precarious.
At the time of Washington’s visit, the Bill of Rights was being debated. In fact, one of the reasons for the President's visit was to gain support for the bill. Without those provisions, religious minorities questioned whether they would still be allowed to practice their religion. Would they be allowed to build houses of worship? Would they have the same political rights as members of mainstream Protestant sects? After all, it was within living memory that "heretics" were banished and, on occasion, burned at the stake in the former English colonies.
Even tolerant Rhode Island’s promise of free religious practice still did not guarantee other civil rights for religious minorities. While Jews were free to worship, do business and travel, they did not benefit from the full political rights that came with citizenship, like holding public office or voting.
Seixas’ message on the behalf Newport’s small Hebrew congregation reminded President Washington of the precarious historic position of Jews, even as the warden optimistically described a future in which they would be fully accepted as American citizens. The letter said, "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, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Implicitly, the letter invited Washington to affirm that view.
How would the President respond? Would he? Then, as now, disputes over religion had the potential to dissolve into controversy. Writing just four days later, Washington reassured the Jewish community of Newport that his government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And he went further, explaining the difference between true freedom and tolerance. Washington wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
Here, as many read it, the President proposes that in the new nation, members of each religion will be able to practice their individual faiths by right, and not through the permission, or indulgence, of the majority. “All,” Washington stipulates, “possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” By anchoring the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs in natural rights, Washington defines religious freedom as a natural right that precedes any constitution or laws, in the same way that the Declaration of Independence had defined “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in 1776.
Washington’s letter was not an isolated document. He had written other letters to America’s Quakers, Catholics and Baptists, but this one was picked up in newspapers across the country. Many historians feel, the exchange has special weight because of the its timing – in the midst of debate over the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and its First Amendment which declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Since its adoption in 1791, the First Amendment has become the legal standard through which many view debates over religion. Washington offered something equally important. As a leader, and the first president of the nation, he offered a moral vision which balances respect for religious difference with the responsibilities of citizenship.
And yet, as we appreciate this story, we still must ask: how do we reconcile this moment with the understanding that Newport’s wealth was built on an economy that was heavily involved in the slave trade? Despite the historic progress of religious freedom in 1790, it remained true that when Washington reassured Seixas that the new government “gives to bigotry no sanction,” his words were still not meant to apply to everyone.
A Particular Story with Universal Lessons
Washington and Moses Seixas story is that of a particular cultural setting, colonial America, and the challenges faced by a unique community, the Jewish congregation of Newport. But much more broadly, we need to be sure to allow students to consider a level of meaning that spans from that history to the present day, and from one community's freedoms to those of many communities in the United States and around the world.
Still, Washington’s words exemplify what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermans exemplifies a toleration based on “mutual recognition and mutual acceptance of divergent worldviews." Habermas explains that this “kind of tolerance allows religion and democracy to coexist in a pluralistic environment.” Many scholars understand that this is a particular story with universal lessons.
An August 2011 Pew study  shows that “more than 2.2 billion people – nearly a third (32%) of the world’s total population of 6.9 billion – live in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially” between 2006-2009. Each day newspapers report on religious and ethnic tension both within and across borders, whether it is about the placement of a new church or the religious dress of new arrivals. Encounters with difference can be flashpoints for conflict or opportunities for understanding. How will classrooms across the world help students negotiate the challenges that come with the unfamiliar? How can we help our students live with uncertainly without compromising their values?
Facing History and Ourselves and the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom  believe Washington’s letter and the lessons it offers about pluralism and democracy is a great place to begin.
Here on nobigotry.facinghistory.org , we share reflections on Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation, its context, and its relevance for today. Also available are teaching ideas, timelines, and further information. We encourage educators, students and the general public to explore the letter to stimulate a deeper understanding of U.S. history and the delicate balance of religious freedom in a democracy.
By Adam Strom, Director of Content Development, Facing History and Ourselves
A version of this article appears in the latest edition of Teaching Tolerance Magazine .
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