After decade in storage, Washington letter on religious freedom will go public
George Washington's letter will go on display after being out of public view for almost a decade.
May 23rd, 2012
02:18 PM ET

After decade in storage, Washington letter on religious freedom will go public

By Alex Zuckerman, CNN

Washington (CNN) – After sitting in storage for nearly a decade, George Washington’s signature statement on religious liberty will go on display this summer in the city where freedom of religion was enshrined in the Constitution: Philadelphia.

America’s first president wrote the letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, assuring American Jews that their freedom of religion would be protected. The document will go on display this summer for the first time since 2002 in an exhibition at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History.

For nine years, the letter has been kept out of public view, in storage at a sterile Maryland office park a few hundred feet from FedEx Field, where the Washington Redskins play. CNN took an inside look at the document in September.

But the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, which owns the letter, has agreed to put the historic document on public display, officials at the National Museum of American Jewish History said.

“Our institution as well as others have been trying to have access to (this) for a long time,” said museum director and CEO Ivy Barsky. “We feel fortunate that the Morgenstern Foundation thought us worthy.”

The loan agreement between the museum and the foundation is unusual. The museum will have the letter for three years but will be allowed to show it for just three months per year. The letter will be kept in a dark storage area for preservation for the other nine months.

An excerpt of the letter showing George Washington's signature.

The document will be accompanied by an exhibit called “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom,” which will run June 29 to September 30. Barsky said the exhibit came together only after the museum was certain it could showcase Washington’s letter.

Before going into storage in 2002, the letter was on display at the Klutznick Museum at B’nai B’rith International Headquarters in Washington. It was on display there for 45 years before the organization downsized, closing its museum. The letter went into storage.

After that,  many people did not realize where the letter had gone, according to Jane Eisner, editor of  Forward, a Jewish newspaper. Eisner dedicated a series of editorials over the last year to lobbying for public display of the letter. She also sent a reporter, Paul Berger, to research the history of the letter.

“This is one of those rare moments as a journalist where you can see the fruits of your labor,” Eisner said. “All we had was all Washington had, which was words. We just have our words and arguments that we try to put out in the public sphere as best we could.”

Morris Morgenstern, center, showed a number of notable people his prized letter, including then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.

The letter is considered to be Washington’s key public statement on religious freedom. Eisner and Barsky say that the document signaled a welcoming of all people to America in pursuit of freedom.

“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths,” the letter reads, “and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

The letter addressed the congregation’s fears that Jews could face discrimination in the new nation. “The letter starts off to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” said Mordechai Eskovitz, rabbi of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. “It was meant for the congregation. It is addressed to the congregation.”

The Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, where Washington sent his letter.

The Library of Congress had asked to display the letter during a 2004 exhibit on the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. When the loan was not completed, many historians speculated that no one would be able to meet the standards of the Morgenstern Foundation for exhibiting the letter.

“Usually people would die just to be invited to display their property,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and a pre-eminent scholar on Jewish-American history. “If the Library of Congress wanted something of mine, they would have it the next day with insured mail.”

Berger, the Forward reporter, says the letter’s placement at another Jewish museum could mean the Morgenstern family would like to see the letter stay in a Jewish facility. “Nobody knows why the family chose the museum in Philadelphia over the Library of Congress,” he said.

The Morgenstern Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

It is unclear where the document will go after its three-year loan at the Museum of American Jewish History.

- CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: History • Judaism

soundoff (869 Responses)
  1. dajmipiwo

    I love you, George Washington.

    May 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  2. roundeyes

    check out Aaron Lopez, one of the fine upstanding jews of newport ri that this letter was directed to.

    May 25, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  3. TruthSeeker

    Interestingly, nowhere in the above article does one find that the displayed passage of George Washington's letter is almost a direct quote from Micah 4:4. The passage in the letter says: "...while everyone shall sit in safety under his own figtree and there shall be none to make him afraid." The King James bible renders the verse this way: "But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it." It seems as if George Washington deliberately omits the last passage of Micah 4:4, where the verse clearly states that the foregoing conditions would be accomplished by God, not by man.

    May 25, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • mandarax

      Sounds like he was doing as Jefferson did with the Jefferson bible – accepting the wisdom and proverbs that exist in parts of the bible, but letting go of the magical/superstitious silliness. I favor that approach as well.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • AZN

      More likely, it was because back then most people studied the Bible thoroughly and knew the origin and remainder of the passage without further explanation. It's like saying "Four score and seven years ago..." We all know (or should) that Lincoln said it without having to cite authority or what comes next.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  4. Holy Diver

    If God made Adam from dirt, why is there still dirt?

    Check-matE Christians!!!!!!!!!

    May 25, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • just sayin

      You are here, dirt still needed not as much. God bless

      May 25, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • mandarax

      Holy Diver, that made me laugh out loud. Thanks.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Trivia: god of where three roads meet

      @HD- that was pretty dumb

      May 25, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • mandarax

      If you've heard ignoramuses say "if people came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" often enough, it's funny.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • BuyG

      Holy Diver

      Where did that dirt come from? Hmmm – wait, science can't explain the origin of matter – not even one tiny grain of sand. Or the origin of life, and certainly not complex and diverse life populating that dirt. Big Bang? Where did that energy for the Big Bang came from? Or the origin of any energy at all. Science doesn't embrace spontaneous creation of matter or energy or life. Or does it? Wow, if it did, that would sound a lot like "faith."

      May 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • AZN

      Holy Diver

      Using your logic, if we evolved from apes, fish, plants, etc., why are there still apes, fish, plants, etc.?

      May 25, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • mandarax

      BuyG – "dirt" is a collection of sediments, which are eroded and transported mineral particles, and is part of the natural rock cycle. They are eroded from other sedimentary deposits or from rocks which are derived from one of three primary processes – igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Particles are transported by water/ice, wind, or gravity and accumulate when a size/velocity threshold is reached (Stokes Law of settling velocity). Soils, a specific kind of dirt, form when sediments are weathered in place by chemical, biological, and physical processes (known as eluviation and illuviation) to form sequential horizons in the original parent material.

      Just because you don't understand where dirt comes from doesn't mean that no one does. And the fact that you don't know where dirt comes from certainly doesn't prove the existence of your particular god. Rather than erroneously claiming "science doesn't know" why not spend some time finding out what is actually known?

      May 25, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101 Teaching Assistant

      BuyG's comment is an example of an Argument from Ignorance fallacy, typically taking the form of "we don't know, therefore it was God."

      May 25, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • BuyG

      Mandarax – wow, I didn't think anyone could miss that point, so let me back it up a bit – where did the ROCKS come from? The point was: matter doesn't create itself from nothing (whether in dirt, rock or any other form).

      Rocks/matter materializing out of thin air. Show me the science behind that? Anyone? Is it magic? If you don't know, and can't explain through science, where even the most fundamental elements came from, then don't say Christians believe in a fairy tale without taking a good long look in the mirror.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @BuyG –

      You're in WAY over your head. For your own safety you really should leave the pool. Really.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • mandarax

      I suspect you are missing my point. Scientists never claim something comes from nothing, that is the realm of magic and religion. Stories of God describe something coming from nothing, not the models of science. I don't claim to know the origin of matter – brighter minds than mine are probably working on it and have figured out more than you or I can imagine on our own. The fact that we don't know yet, or even if we never know, does not mean a supernatural being spoke it into existence. Based on what we do know, there is absolutely no precedent for that to be true of anything. In the history of humanity there is nothing – not one single thing ever – that we did not understand that turned out to be magic.

      Why are religious people so quick to assert that god always existed, but stubbornly insist that the entire universe must have a beginning and an end? Who says there has to be a time before matter existed? Contrary to common misunderstanding that is not even what the Big Bang model proposes. The fact that we don't know things does not prove a magical force in the sky. That is the quintessential false dichotomy.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @mandarax –

      Damn you're patient and generous!

      May 25, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • BuyG

      Fallacy Spotting 101's Teaching Assistant.

      I see why you're only an assistant. You propound the same thing: "We don't know, but it can't be God" or "We don't know, but it must be science." Teaching Assistant. Riiiiiight.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @BuyG –
      –No serious scientist (or intelligent person) ever has or would say "We don't know, but it can't be God" – that's just stupid.
      –Science is not a "thing" that could "be" an explanation...science is a systematic approach to knowledge that minimizes the chance that we will be deceived by our own innate errors in reason.
      Seriously...how do you expect to compete when you don't even have directions to the stadium?

      May 25, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • mandarax

      Thanks, Really-O.

      BuyG, I think you are confusing the meanings of God and science. Science is not the opposite of god. Science is not a thing, it's a process of testing explanations against observations. That's why it sometimes seems like scientific explanations keep changing, because even the most entrenched explanations are continually open to questioning and falsification. Explanations are always tentative and are continually being replaced with better explanations. Better means they are in alignment with a larger number of observations.

      This is not true of religion. God is a thing, not a process. The opposite of science is not god, it is faith. Faith is believing regardless of evidence, and therefore the most entrenched explanations are specifically not open to questioning. As a safeguard against falsification, most religions make questioning a sin.

      Again, no one says "I don't understand, therefore science did it." The strength of science is "I don't understand, therefore I will attempt to understand it by continually testing my ideas against evidence."

      May 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Really-O?

      ... amendment: There have been scientists and intelligent people who have said, to effect, "it can't be God." They are a minority and I don't agree with their reasons, but I admit they exist.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • mandarax

      I agree with Really-O – when you start claiming absolute certainties, you have stopped doing science.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  5. BuyG

    My favorite George Washington quote:

    "It is impossible rightly to govern the world without God and the Bible."

    I'd say that also covers it.

    May 25, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • How to raise christian children

      Sure does.. he knew religion and god could be used to control people. More especially, the less intelligent.

      May 25, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Jack

      If the founding fathers jumped off of a bridge, would you?

      May 25, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Chief justice Earl Warren

      The founding fathers did jump off a bridge and formed a new nation under God with liberty and justice. We need to all commit to the high Christian ideals that inspired our founders, return to God and restore our national honor.

      May 25, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Jack

      You know, it is possoble that people other than the founding fathers have good ideas about running a country. But when you find ultimate truth in a 2000 year old book why should I expect you to look anywhere but the past. Newton may have invented calculus, but there are mathematicians today that could math circles around Newton. Religion and polotics look to the past. Science looks to the future. Have fun in the stone age.

      May 25, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • BuyG

      How to raise

      The word you overlooked was "rightly." He wasn't talking about mind control, but right government. Besides, since he was a church goer himself, I don't think George Washington would talk badly about his belief.

      The point of the quote is that the founders, at least many, believed God and the Bible were to be included as guiding principles of our government. Those positions and statements contradict modernists saying that the founders of the country intended God to be removed from government and that George Washington was not a Christian, but a "Deist" (he did say "God AND the Bible," not just God). It does support Christians maintaining that the founders intended the country to be governed as a Christian nation, but tolerant and accepting of those with other beliefs, or none at all. As it is, the modernists seek a government intolerant of those who believe in God or Christ.

      The founders did not intend the First Amendment to exclude Christian principles from the affairs of government. The Amendment only prohibited Congress from enacting laws promoting – or forbidding – the establishment of any given Church. Some states had been disavowing the Church of England, leaving, for example, Baptists with the political clout. The Amendment prohibited the FEDERAL government (but not the states) from doing the same.

      The modern interpretation is a recent fiction, dating from the 1940s. With regard to religious freedom, the First Amendment actually says:

      "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; " Note that it doesn't say "Congress shall make no law establishing religion." It says "Congress shall make no law RESPECTING (i.e. "regarding") the establishment of religion." That was intended to be read as going both ways – that Congress should not pass laws establishing a "national religion" itself, and also that it shall make no laws regarding such establishment – for example, prohibiting the establishment by the states – of an official religion. The Amendment prohibits the establishment of a "Church of the United States," for example, or embracing Catholicism or the Baptist faith, etc., as THE official church of the US. That Amendment originally ONLY applied to the federal government. In point of fact, many states had done exactly that – established the official church of the state. I'm not saying that was right or good, but it was lawful. The First Amendment should have also prevented Congress from making any law prohibiting the states from doing so – as the Amendment prohibits the making of any law by Congress with respect to the establishment of religion – including laws prohibiting states from making such laws. It wasn't until 1947 that the Supreme Court applied it to the states, in Everson v. Board of Education. Until that case was decided, the states had the right to include God and Christian references in government .

      The point is, the country was not intended to be devoid of Christian principles in governmental affairs. Hard as many may find it to believe or understand, there are some people who want a government to acknowledge God in its workings, and that was how our founders envisioned it. The twisting of the First Amendment to prohibit faith from government altogether is changing the premise under which the country was founded and depriving those citizens of the kind of government the framers intended.

      Now, if you want to see what was better, simply compare the government we had when it embraced Christian principles (like paying your debts timely) with the government we have had in the last, say 50 years – and tell us how that government free from the guidance of Christian principles is working out for us.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Christian messenger

      justus warren the fonding Fathers looked across the atlantic and decide to let the people decide their own religious ideas and activities as long as their religious beliefs did not infringe upon the rights of others....

      Why indeed are so many Christians in need of governmeent when they profess to believe in the greatest power .... THE MARTYRS OF JESUS HAD NO GOVERNMENT TO PROTECT THEM and they conquered their enemies with out weapons or bloodshed in just a couple hundred years of so ... They then took over that Roman Empire and then ran it into the ground...which is what many want to do to the USA.... WHEN THE ROMAN EMPIRE BECAME CHRISTIAN... SO CAME THE DARK AGES .... and all the other curses which accompanied the prophecy's in Revelation... 🙂 🙂

      May 25, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @BuyG – regarding "My favorite George Washington quote"

      "“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”
      George Washington

      See how easy that was?

      May 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Really-O?

      ...and, yes, I know that was not actually stated by Washington...which is part of the point.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • BuyG


      That was not written by George Washington. That phrase appears in a treaty with Muslim pirates. The phrase did NOT appear in the treaty as originally drafted. The phrase appeared after it had come back to the United States, having first been signed off on by other officials at every stop. While was ratified by Congress while George Washington was President, as explained earlier, by the time it got back to Congress, they were legally obligated to accept the treaty as amended beause the agents of the US had signed off on it binding the government. Please don't attribute that to the handiwork of George Washington.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @BuyG –

      And you make my point by the fact that you miss my point. Priceless.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  6. Leigh

    All people who would like to have Christianity be enshrined in American law in this country, take note. ALL BELIEFS as well as NO BELIEFS are welcome here.

    May 25, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Christian messenger

      to have Christianity enshrined into American law would bring darkness to our nation...IT CAME TO THE ROMAN EMPIRE WHEN THEY CONVERTED TO CHRISTIANITY ! Why ????? becaue the Chruch looked to men and not to God...God became a monument to them, no longer teh conforter that he wanted to be ...excepte to those who remained faithul to him...

      May 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 25, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • Sean P

      quoting willie from a different thread:

      "If this is true then there are no good Christians. This means no one has prayed for all war to stop, for all famine to stop, for all killing of children to stop, for all things evil to stop. Unless it is the Christians that are praying for these things to happen."

      Prayers do not work. You think your god is more willing to help you find your car keys than to help millions of starving babies, prevent billions of instances of child abuse, or even give us rules that work instead of giving us liars who write mystical claptrap that people like you think is truth.

      Prayers do not work. When you realize this, you will become a little smarter, a little wiser, and a little sadder.

      May 25, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • just sayin

      Other than the long history from creation to today of prayer being a working reality. God bless

      May 25, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • ಠ_ಠ

      Obviously your version of "working reality" is based upon written lies and not actual proof.

      May 25, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • just sayin

      Proof of the life changing nature of talking with God has been testified to by millions of people over thousands of years. What planet have you been on? God bless

      May 25, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Jack

      "testified to by millions of people over thousands of years"

      Objection, hearsay.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Jamie

      Why can't prayer change things for individuals that have lost their limbs? Why not pray to bring Farwell back to life?

      Amazing how prayer can change the direction of a tornado, or other things that have scientific explanations, but never work for something that would actually be a miracle...

      May 25, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • a person of the Name

      Though I never seen a limb regenerate, I have seen God's awesome power to heal those that are sick. Happened just a few weeks ago with a good friend of mine who spent 3 weeks waiting for the doctors to decide to go in for surgery.

      May 25, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • just sayin

      Not hearsay to me jack, personal testimony. God bless

      May 25, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • Jamie

      @a person of the Name – How do you know god healed your friend? I prayed to the flying spaghetti monster that my dad would be healed from his sickness and he was!

      If you can move mountains with prayer, then just pick any worthy veteran that lost his/her limb. Use your power of prayer and see what happens.

      Personally, my money is on science and doctors providing artificial limbs to those in need since god isn't able to help...

      May 25, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Jamie

      @just sayin – "testified to by millions of people over thousands of years" – If that is your argument, then I take it you believe in allah and will be ok with muslims making the same argument to you?

      May 25, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • a person of the Name

      @ jamie: I seen the x-ray where he was going to have surgury to remove a part of his small intestine. It was causing him to spit up blood and he couldn't eat anything. The day before they did another x-ray and couldn't find the bad area. So, they decided to cut him open and go though by hand they never found anything. I ask the doctor what happened and he said he didn't know that it was there and now it isn't.

      May 25, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Jamie

      @a person of the Name – There are many things we still can't explain with science, but saying it is god's doing does not explain it any better than simply saying "i don't know".

      There are many stories like yours from many different religions as well as from non-believers. If someone prays to another god (or no god at all) and a healing like this occurs, will you accept that their god is indeed real?

      You still aren't answering my question. On all of the things that we do scientifically understand, why won't god answer prayers? Why does it always have to be stories like yours? What does god have against amputees? Why won't he bring people back to life? Why won't he split a river for someone to cross? Why won't he put out a raging forest fire on his own, instantly? Anything that we know that would truly go against nature and god is somehow absent...

      May 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • a person of the Name

      The sad truth is, we live in a world full of hate and sin. Sin has a price and must be paid. The evils of man are mans own doing and God doesn't stop it for many reason. I would be a fool to say I know why God does somethings and not others. I just know I trust Him and I've seen more then just this one instance. I seen a fire go around our church camp that is in the woods. So I know He can do it.
      Read the Bible and ask God these things. Who knows you may find something that I had missed.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Jamie

      Wow, all of our service men and women who have lost limbs fighting for our christian nation are paying that price for sin. god not only refuses to help them, but inflicted this on them.

      i have read the bible, many times cover-to-cover. That is actually what made me a non-believer and helped me remove the years of brainwashing. If more christians would actually read the bible instead of listening to others tell them what it says, we'd certainly have more non-believers.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Jiminy Cricket

      Similarly effective:

      When you wish upon a star
      Your dreams come true.

      It is written.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • mandarax

      I think what James is pointing out is that all the things that God is purported to heal are things that sometimes get better on their own or through treatment. The things that never get better on their own such as a lost limb, or an extra chromosome in the case of Down Syndrome – the things that would indeed require a miracle – never ever happen. This should be telling us something.

      Statistical improbabilities are not miracles – if you are given a 5% chance to live and do you live, that doesn't make it a miracle, you are just really fortunate to be among that 5%.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • mandarax

      *Jamie – sorry.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • a person of the Name

      Yes its a high price, for men in power seek more power. It is lust and is a sin. God is with them He sees their pain and weeps with them. He uses the doctors to help those that are sick. God's hand is everywhere but He won't stop the evil of this world, He could but He won't, it goes agaisnt free will.

      I too have read the Bible, many times. Twice when I was a non-believer. You see you can read it and still lack understanding. Seek God in all things, even in reading the Word you might be surprised.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Christian messenger

      Then pray for athiets to change... 🙂

      May 25, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • Jesus

      `Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      May 29, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  8. BuyG

    I don't think there is any question George Washington was not a deist, but a Christian. Nor can there be doubt that, in his opinion, that the United States was a Christian nation. Lots of historians overlook his own words on the matter, which appears dispositive of any conjecture. For one clear example, read this passage of his speech to the Delaware Indian chiefs on May 12, 1799:

    "You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.

    These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it."

    Two things – (1) Washington tells the Delawares that they should learn "our" ways of life – and "above all" the religion of Jesus Christ. That's a very specific religion, not just a belief in God, but Christianity.

    (2) Washington then instructs the Delaware chiefs that CONGRESS would assist them in "this wise intention." Not much argument that he saw the Congress as not only a Christian legislature but one that would actively assist in teaching Christianity to the native tribe. The modern concept that the federal government is supposed to remain "religion neutral" was not envisioned by the founders. Freedom of Religion was a right to worship, or not, as you pleased without fear of retaliation from the government for one's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) as happened in England. The "non-establishment clause" actually arose because some states had disavowed the Church of England, leaving members of other churches, notably Baptist churches, wielding political clout. The "non-establishment clause" was drafted to prohibit CONGRESS (note – NOT the states) from passing similar laws promoting a particular CHURCH over another (such as England had done with the Church of England). In fact, it was also intended to prohibit Congress from passing laws that would interfere with those states that had passed laws establishing a particular religion, as some states had already done. It was not intended as a blanket "freedom FROM religion," as many argue today. The United States was intended as a nation governed by Christian principles, but tolerant of everyone's beliefs. It was not intended as a government devoid of religious belief, but merely one in which there would be a nationally promoted specific church, such as the Baptists, Roman Catholic, or "Church of the United States," if you will.

    Now, why is that important? Because the courts have "reinterpreted" the First Amendmentand reinvented the founders' "intent." And that is just wrong.

    If a segment of the population wants to live in a country in which the government is DEVOID of religious guidance, there are many countries to choose from. But it is wrong for this same segment of the population to strip from others the right to live in a Christian-guided nation by compelling a government intended to be guided by Christian principles to disassociate from all religion at all.

    May 25, 2012 at 4:14 am |
    • BuyG

      That was intended to say "...NO nationally promoted specific church..."

      May 25, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • TR6

      Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, which was written in 1796 and the text APPROVED BY GEORGE WASHINGTON, and signed into law in 1797 by President John Adams states, "AS THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA IS NOT IN ANY SENSE FOUNDED ON THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries." How do you get the founding fathers meant us to be a Christian nation from that?

      May 25, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • BRC

      You've done an excellent job of taking that quote out of context. It was actually part of a response Washington was making to a list of pettions that a small group of representative from the Delaware nation (which had for a long time presented a significant threat to our forces, and was just starting to become less combative, some believed because of the influence of peaceful missionaries) wished to make to "Congress" (our nation was still engaged in the revolutionary war, so we weren't formed yet").

      Here was one of the items on their list-
      5th That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation—the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their Power.

      And here was Washington's reply-
      My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

      That in no way establishes a premise the he intended our nation to be a Christian nation, and even if it hinted at it, the consttution, and most all of our formative edicts and articles, directly contradict the notion. We are not a Christian nation, we are a nation that (for now) is majority Christian. There is a substantial (and important) difference.

      May 25, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • BuyG


      That language was not in the original text of the treaty, but was added sometime after – and before it was ratified by Congress – but after it had been signed off by numerous officials who had bound the Congress to its terms. See this Wiki entry:

      "The Treaty also had spent seven months traveling from Tripoli to Algiers to Portugal and, finally, to the United States, and had been signed by officials at each stop along the way. Neither Congress nor President Adams would have been able to cancel the terms of the Treaty by the time they first saw it, and there is no record of discussion or debate of the Treaty of Tripoli at the time that it was ratified."

      This was a very delicate situation, as the treaty was intended to stop the Muslim pirates from attacking our ships, which they had been doing. It was a matter of safety, and Congress was bound to its terms legally.

      May 25, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  9. MashaSobaka

    Washington's opinion on religious freedom is indeed fascinating from a certain perspective, but a lot of people seem to think it has something to do with modern debates on religious freedom (particularly as it applies to women's healthcare and gay rights). Let's not forget that the opinions of someone who lived centuries ago shouldn't really be our baseline for our modern-day problems. Whether the "Founding Fathers" valued religious liberty is irrelevant. I'd be alarmed if people used Washington's opinions on the ownership of slaves as a factor in the discussion of modern human rights. Why should religious liberty be any different?

    May 25, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • PDX James

      Because people will cherry pick anything out of context to prove they are right, especially politicians and extremists of any kind.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Momof3

      chirstians will only listen to those that are out of context and out of date, hence the 1600 year-old bible...

      May 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  10. David Levant

    Monday is Memorial day,maybe we should think about that.

    May 25, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  11. vulpecula

    Most of the founders that people know the names of were Deists. Not Christians. Look up "the Enlightenment period" of "American Enlightenment". Organized religion was seen as a tool of monarchies and was not trusted. Deists had rejected the holy trinity. They did not believe christ was the son of god. The did beleave in a god though. But Science to them was no longer defined by the church. It's very interesting reading and there are tons of information about this.

    May 25, 2012 at 1:58 am |
    • Christine

      Exactly- the Deists strove to create freedom OF religion in a very rational way- allowing people to practice openly– not freedom FROM religion that excludes practice of religion within the public space as so many would like to see these days...

      May 25, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • vulpecula

      No one is preventing anyone from practicing in public places. The arguments are about government influencing people on religion. Children can still pray in school, just not lead in prayer my a goverment employee. The 10 commandments can be posted in public places, and private property, just not in government buildings, etc.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:31 am |
    • Mad Cow

      "Organized religion was seen as a tool of monarchies and was not trusted."
      Well said.
      I find it interesting to note that the Boston Tea Party was about refusal to pay the 10% tax to the Church of England, among other things. It is sad today that we must pay taxes to support the Church of the United States.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:31 am |
    • Mad Cow

      @Christine – My freedom of religion is freedom from YOUR religion. You can wear all the religious trappings you can rationally attach to your self, but I will fight you tooth and nail if you try to force YOUR religion into OUR publicly owned places, like schools, courthouses, governments, etc.
      Our country is based on EQUALITY more than anything else, and YOUR religion is not MORE EQUAL than mine.

      Our founding fathers, and mothers, were actually Pastafarians. May the FSM reach out and touch you, Christine, with his noodly appendage.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:38 am |
  12. Susie

    It would be nice if CNN published something important...LIKE THE TEXT OF THE LETTER!!

    May 25, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • Raz

      It's not difficult to find the contents of the letter online

      May 25, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • Zaxxon

      Susie, I was thinking exactly the same thing.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:25 am |
  13. roundeyes

    no, we're talking about white christian males,but the manipulation of humans
    white and black, and the subhuman lice who who now plan to subjudicate them all.
    jews bankrolled the importation of slaves into rhode island, their "land of freedom".

    May 25, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • John Q. Public

      Oh, so now you are telling us that Jews were responsible for slavery in the USA? You are a real fine example of a vulgar anti-semite. I'm reporting the likes of you to the editors. This kind of bigotry is not protected speech.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • pbernasc

      Actually bigotry is very much under freedom of speech .. including antisemitism.
      Doesn't make it a good thing.. but one can say it as many time as he wants.
      What he cannot do is inciting violence, for whatever reason .. bu then it is not about freedom of speech, meaning not about the opinion, but it is about protecting the public from violence.

      U don't like antisemitic people .. move to a country where there are none... like Israel, where clearly God is not welcome.
      All of the above said ... Religion is a big lie .. so u r wrong anyway

      May 25, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  14. Markus


    People argue about how religious the founders were, and it seems to matter to them. But why is that an issue? Despite evidence to the contrary, suppose the founders actually were committed members of the Christian cult. Then modern Christians will say 'and therefore we must maintain their vision'. But the founders were also white supremacists.

    And therefore ... well?

    Why care what they thought? Our ancestors were, in general, bigoted, inbred, violent freaks. Abandon them.

    May 25, 2012 at 1:04 am |
    • mandarax

      Unfortunately, it's an issue because people who want to see us become a Christian theocracy try to use that to rationalize that the United States was always intended to be a Christian theocracy. It's an absolutely absurd perspective, and yet they have managed to convince themselves and many other like minded evangelicals. They honestly seem to think their vision trumps historical reality. You've seen the revisions to history textbooks in Texas?

      May 25, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Life Warrior

      I agree, and if you go back into human history on this planet it is the same story over and over again wherever you go. It's disgusting!!! Even the Indian tribes were killing each other before the "White Man" ever got here and we are suppose to be sympathetic to them too. When will the baloney stop??? I am sympathetic to any innocent person who was just minding there business and suffered at the hands of any sick-minded freak at any time since man existed. This countries founders used religion, like everyone else, to control those around them at that time.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Mike

      So what, so the founders were religious. They were great men, albeit flawed (as are the rest of us) that were brought together at exactly the right time to found this nation. Their divinely inspired words still guide us today. Quite frankly, to say that they were bigots or freaks is wrong; to do so is to misunderstand the culture of their day. Do not so egregiously disrespect the men who gave you the right to speak in such a manner.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • JdJr


      Very well. In return, to dispose of the traditions which were beneficial to the formation of the USA, we could also dispose of other things which were directly connected to those traditions, eg freedom of speech, freedom of religion (including atheism, judaism, christiaity, islam, etc) and many other benefits.

      The question to be asked, therefore, is: are those benefits actually *from* the Founding Fathers, and their "Christian Cult" traditions?

      Compare their founding to similar colonial freedom; for example, South America around a century later. Or perhaps Vietnam, founded by the French, or the Congo, founded by the British.

      True, there is Canada and Australia, but the argument can be made that unlike the other colonies I just listed, the population was primarily the same as the host country.

      Feel free to abandon the traditions that founded this country, it is your right. Just make sure you are equally eager to embrace the consequences.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Markus


      There are no divinely inspired words. There are no rights given. There are only things that we do to each other and let each other do. 'Rights' are imaginary idealizations. 'All men equal' is still not real. Your complaints link with another's, so please read on:


      Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion and equality are all notions alien to Christianity. Christianity failed to produce them over centuries of stagnation, and gets no credit. The Christianity you know and defend now is a domesticated version, forced to comply with others. You will be tired of the history of religious wars, but don't call those people extremists or fanatics or fringe. That implies that they are outliers, appearing infrequently and not to be considered as representative. They occupy every year in every place of Christian existence, so they are not fringe. Their consistent appearance and activity despite the span of centuries and hemispheres must be owed to that one thing they have in common: their cult.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • TR6

      @JdJr: “Very well. In return, to dispose of the traditions which were beneficial to the formation of the USA, we could also dispose of other things which were directly connected to those traditions, eg freedom of speech, freedom of religion”

      Typical Christian, lying by omission. Unlike the tradition of Christianity or slavery, freedom of speech, freedom of religion… are not just traditions. They are rights guaranteed by the const1tution.

      I’m perfectly willing to give up all traditions that are exclusive to any and all religions, and good riddance. I am not, unlike so many christians, willing to trash the const1tution.

      May 25, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  15. roundeyes

    my puppy loves me too.
    shalom, and good hunting

    May 25, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  16. Life Warrior

    I feel bad for anyone who does not feel in their heart and soul that there is something to gives thanks to for our existence. Stop putting G-D in a box in order to debunk scientifically what you do not fathom. G-D has given all things, including this planet, and everything beyond, it free will. Why do so many former Christians run to atheism when they find their freedom instead of just asking Jesus to step aside and begin a new relationship with G-D alone. The old testament belongs to the Jews, which I am one, but G-D belongs to everyone. Do not turn your back on G-D just because your parents and family tortured you with Christianity. You were smart enough to see through the baloney. Now realize science is G-D without a box. Love to all.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Life Warrior

      Forgive any misspelled words or punctuality errors.

      May 25, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • LinCA

      @Life Warrior

      Is your god like Voldemort? He-who-must-not-be-named?

      May 25, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • vulpecula

      When you stop to think about how silly all those thousands and thosands of religions other than yours are, you'll understand just how silly your religion looks to atheists.

      May 25, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • communicator1453

      When you mention God, you're using a word of Teutonic and Sanskrit origin. It's not the same as the Hebrew for YHWH, which requires specific guidelines for pronunciation. I'm not Hebrew; therefore, I can't say whether it's sacrilege to write the word YHWH, but it appears in the Hebrew canon. Consequently, in writing the word, I think what matters most is how you use it. Do you use it flippantly or with reverence?

      I personally do not feel the modern English word, God, deserves the same reverence as YHWH. It descended to us from the German word, Gott, which came from Indo-European origin. In fact there is evidence that the Teutonic gods might well be invoked with the word God. Sometime after the Christian baptism of Europe, we adopted the concept of Gott and christianized it just as we did the pagan holidays.

      The word god is nothing special. We use it for so many purposes that it might as well mean rag mop. In fact, we could call a rag mop the god of all clean floors. We call certain men gods. We say the "gods must be crazy." No, the word god is a very common usage for many concepts. It's when we capitalize this word that it takes on the Christian meaning: the omniscient one, the omnipotent, the omnipresent. It's similar to the Greek word, theos, but not quite the same.

      May 25, 2012 at 5:20 am |
  17. roundeyes

    time will tell.
    solicit the opinion of any 3 middleclass europeans on zionism in europe.
    if they are honest, you will be shocked.
    how many times in history have they been "relocated"?
    as i said, ASIAN LICE.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:53 am |
  18. LauraJT

    There goes the Republican theory that this country was founded by Christian fundamentalists. Too bad for the rest of us that they'll never believe facts even when they're staring them in the face. Just to clarify for them, Jews are not Christians.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • mandarax

      Neither are Deists, for that matter. Most people who argue for the Christianity of our founding father don't even realize that the evangelical movement didn't even become widespread until the mid 20th century. The kind of Christianity they fantasize about our country being founded upon didn't even exist.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:04 am |
    • mandarax


      May 25, 2012 at 1:05 am |
  19. Christians think Sharia Law is immoral but impose their own Sharia Law in America.

    No matter what version, it's immoral to impose your religion and deny others civil rights.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:38 am |
    • Rob

      You speak for all Christians? How odd. I am a Christian, have never met you and do not think as you boast. CNN article's are more often bias garbage at best. Don't drink their kool aide either.

      May 25, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • n8362

      @Rob, not even Hitler claimed to speak for all Christians. Why would you think a random blogger would claim to speak for all Christians? This statement is generally true and if you look at other comments on this blog other Christians agree.

      May 25, 2012 at 4:11 am |
  20. Benjamin

    It's a shame so many peoples came together in the shared values of religious freedom, only to let 200 years pass and religious zealotry put everyone at odds with each other.

    May 25, 2012 at 12:34 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.