Washington's Birthday: Time To Celebrate The First President's Commitment To Religious Freedom

In America, Washington said, "the light of truth and reason had triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition" and each American can worship "according to the dictates of his own heart."

Although President's Day was marked, celebrated or shrugged off by Americans on Feb. 19, today marks the 275th birthday of the nation's first president, George Washington.

On Feb. 22, 1732, Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Va. He was hugely successful in forging a young nation, partly because of his staunch commitment to religious liberty for all.

In 1790, Washington responded to a letter from a Rhode Island congregation, Touro Synagogue, that had expressed gratitude for the nation's commitment to religious freedom.

Washington's answer contained a resounding affirmation of that principle.

"The Citizens of the United States of America," he said, "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.

Washington continued, "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 national gifts. 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."

Today, oddly, a fringe element is trying to recruit Washington into the Religious Right. While he was not a church-state visionary like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, he was no theocrat. These revisionist books and claims are wildly off the mark.

As scholars Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore note in their 1997 book, The Godless Constitution, Washington "wrote proudly of his opposition to 'the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.'"

Kramnick, a distinguished professor of government at Cornell University, and Moore, a history professor at Cornell and author of several books about the nation's religious background, also noted that in 1793 Washington celebrated freedom of conscience. In America,  Washington said, "the light of truth and reason had triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition" and each American can worship "according to the dictates of his own heart."

The still young nation continues to owe gratitude to a Founding Father who was devoted to religious liberty for all.