As is often the case, the words of George Washington are worth pondering as the nation deals with issues of the day.
In 1790 — a time when some states professed religious “toleration” rather than liberty, and when some had state-sponsored churches and wouldn’t let non-Christians hold office — Washington wrote a letter to a small Jewish congregation in Rhode Island.
He had just visited the group as part of a tour of the states. His letter, though short, set the tone for what has become the nation’s legacy of religious liberty — something that has preserved the peace and made the United States a beacon for oppressed people worldwide.
He wrote that “ 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.”
Then he added these important words: “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.”
The letter, quoted here from the website tourosynagogue.org, is worth studying.
Three things make Washington’s words current today.
In recent months, the Obama administration has been accused of turning its back on the tradition of religious liberty. The military, in particular, has witnessed a series of disturbing reports involving the discipline or reassignment of people expressing religious convictions.
One of the most recent involved reports on Foxnews.com, complete with pictures, that soldiers at Camp Shelby in Mississippi were briefed on hate groups and told the American Family Association is on a par with the Ku Klux Klan.
The association, or AFA, is a mainstream Christian organization. The presenter allegedly singled them out because they espouse traditional family values, which means they teach that homosexual behavior is a sin.
A subsequent Fox report quoted Pentagon officials as saying the briefing did not reflect Army doctrine and that the group does not qualify as a hate group.
The second item was the resignation last week of Suzan Johnson Cook as U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
The third is a case pending at the U.S. Supreme Court, concerning whether prayers primarily offered by Christians before the start of town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., violate the First Amendment’s protections against the establishment of religion.
Taken together, these offer the United States a great opportunity to recommit itself as the world’s champion for religious liberty — a place where everyone can “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree,” to use Washington’s phrase, without fear of punishment.
Of course, the opportunity also exists for a different outcome, which would be a tragedy, particularly at a time when violence against religious adherents is rampant in many parts of the world.
The best outcome would be for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, with full support of President Obama, to issue a firm and decisive statement about the role of religious liberty in the armed forces and the nation’s commitment to protect it.
No doubt some of the recent claims have been overstated. But some are true, lending to an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. A clear statement would end the confusion.
The best outcome also would be for the Obama administration to pick a strong new ambassador for religious freedom — one with diplomatic experience whose mission is to press for liberty worldwide, not just act as a liaison to religious leaders in other countries.
Writing on Foreignpolicy.com, Will Inboden notes that the nation cannot adequately counter radical jihadi groups without a strategy “of which religious freedom must be an integral part.”
Finally, the best outcome would be a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that supports prayers at public meetings, allowing all who wish to do so an opportunity regardless of beliefs. Fortunately, the Obama administration already has weighed in on the side of religion in that case, joining 23 states and several religious groups.
These three positive outcomes, together with a change in policy regarding Obamacare and forced contraceptive coverage, could help the United States live up to Washington’s policy of giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance.