‘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.”
Those lines from George Washington’s letter of 1790 to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, sent a clear signal that people of all faiths would be welcome in the newly formed United States.
More than two centuries later, many Americans still haven’t got the message. Vandals last month overturned hundreds of headstones in Jewish cemeteries. A similar number of bomb threats have been phoned in to Jewish community centers. Swastikas have defaced synagogues and the Hebrew Union College. This is not the nation our first president envisioned.
The 45th president, to his credit, denounced these outrages in a recent address to Congress. In an encouraging note, Muslim leaders in St. Louis raised over $20,000 in a matter of hours to help repair the damage to a cemetery there, offering a united front against hate.
More needs to be done, especially at a moment when violence against religious minorities is growing. Hurling racial slurs and demanding that they “get out of my country,” a gunman shot and killed two Indian engineers in Kansas, mistaking the pair for Iranians. While 2016 FBI statistics are not yet available, the year 2015 showed a 67 percent jump in crimes against Muslims over previous levels.
Even in 1790, America was a land of many faiths, and our first president embraced that pluralism, proclaiming to the Jewish residents of Rhode Island that: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Freedom to worship belonged to every sect, in other words, not at the sufferance of a more powerful majority, but as a matter of fundamental liberty and individual right. At the time Washington wrote his famous letter, several states were still debating whether to ratify the First Amendment guaranteeing “free exercise,” and some states still had religious establishments. When Washington affirmed 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,” his target audience was not just one small synagogue but the newly forming nation.
Seeking an inclusive spiritual blessing that might speak to people of goodwill, regardless of creed, Washington ended his letter with a non-denominational prayer: “May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths!”
As inheritors of this legacy, we can either join in celebrating America as the most spiritually diverse country on the planet, or see our founder’s dreams grow dim. Protestant or Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, atheist or in the Native American tradition, let us live in “each under his or her own vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:4) in mutual respect.
Kowalski serves the Unitarian Congregation of Taos.