If you have never visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, I highly recommend it. Dedicated in 1763 and designed by the same architect as Boston’s own King’s Chapel, the building is a monument to the long presence in North America of the Jewish people. It is also associated with one of our first President’s greatest public statements, which is why it comes to mind as I contemplate that we are exactly one year away from the next Presidential inauguration. The coming months will present us with sharply contrasting visions of what it means to be an American. In our Episcopal Church, we are grappling these days with the shadow side of American history, including the ongoing legacies of conquest and slavery. But I would like to reflect today on one of the glories of the American experiment, our tradition of religious liberty. And its essence was set forth by George Washington in his “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island” dated August 18, 1790.
As Europe emerged from the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, religious toleration became a hot topic for political reformers. While it certainly represented progress over persecution and war, toleration was certainly not enough. Toleration implies the existence of a tolerator and a tolerated. The tolerators, out of the goodness of their hearts, permit the tolerated to exist in their midst. It is not an equal relationship. The tolerated are not quite full citizens under this arrangement, and the thing about permission is that it can always be revoked.
George Washington confronts this head-on: “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. 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.”
It's unfortunate that changes in our language prevent these words from being immediately understandable to 21st century readers. “Demean” in this context means “conduct oneself.” (When I was sworn in as a lawyer in Texas, I vowed “to honestly demean myself” in the practice of law—no lawyer jokes, please!) I would love to see this text become as familiar to schoolchildren as the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution.
What was Washington telling the Jewish community of Newport (and us) in his letter? That religious liberty is not a gift that a fellow human may choose to bestow on us—it is a fundamental human right, and a gift of the Creator (who grants us even the freedom not to believe, if that is what our conscience demands!).
Sadly, religious liberty is under attack almost everywhere in the world today. Even here in the United States, we must always be vigilant to protect it. But if the necessary work of confronting the wrongs of our past sometimes leaves you feeling down, take heart in George Washington’s immortal letter to the Newport synagogue.
Robert Christian, Intern for the Diaconate