It used to be common knowledge that America’s first national Thanksgiving Day was established by President George Washington in 1789. While a few modern critics might be rankled by, as Washington’s proclamation puts it, an official “day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” for most Americans, the first national Thanksgiving Day stands as an enduring precedent reminding us of Washington’s wise vision for American religious freedom.
Both chambers of Congress requested that Washington proclaim an official day to thank “Almighty God” for allowing the American people to create a republican “form of government for their safety and happiness.”
The vast majority of Americans still believe that was a good decision. In a survey conducted earlier this month, respondents were asked whether the federal government did the right thing when it declared the first national Thanksgiving Day. They were told that the government recommended that Americans engage in thanksgiving and prayer to “acknowledge with grateful hearts” the blessings of Almighty God.
Eighty-four percent said the federal government did the right thing. And when told that it was President Washington who was the source of this proclamation, 92% of Americans—8 percentage points higher—agreed that Washington did the right thing.
This overwhelming support for such a public act of religion might be galling to those activists who have subjected America to over six decades of acrimonious litigation in an attempt to expunge all evidence of religion from public life.
These activists would have us believe that every expression of religious sentiment or reverence for God in the public square is a step on an irreversible path to theocratic control of government by the religious at the expense of the non-religious.
President Washington knew better. His vision for the proper role for religion in public life and for church-state relations was both realistic and balanced.
He recognized that government should not be in the business of building houses of worship or of saving souls. Although he was a longtime leader of his Virginia parish of the Church of England—a state-established church in the old country—he knew that our new nation should never establish a church. The First Amendment, drafted and ratified during Washington’s presidency, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
But Washington also knew that Americans were a religious people. He knew that the Constitution was crafted to foster and protect freedoms, including a robust right to public expression of religious sentiments—even if that expression might offend some segments of the population.
In fact, the protection of religious freedom was so important to Washington that he stated that “the establishment of civil and religious liberty” had been “the motive that induced me to the field of battle” as commander of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.
At an event in Washington, D.C., last week launching a new program to protect American religious freedom, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., aptly characterized Washington’s motivation: “Washington understood that religious liberty is a fundamental human right and, in the American context, the premise and predecessor for all the other rights that our founding documents and the law give us.”
As military commander, Washington demonstrated his commitment to this fundamental right by repeatedly imploring the Continental Congress to provide enough military chaplains, of diverse religious views, to meet the needs of his many soldiers. As president, he ensured that members of Congress had two chaplains of different religious backgrounds to minister to their spiritual needs.
Both practices endure to this day. Contrary to the overwrought fears and rhetoric of strict separationists, neither providing chaplains, proclaiming an official day of prayer and thanksgiving, nor anything else Washington did has caused any movement toward America’s establishing a national church, much less a theocracy.
Looking at Washington’s example, it is striking to see how he combined in one man two seemingly contrary characteristics. First, he routinely, publicly, and unabashedly lauded the benefits of religion in the life of our nation. At the same time, however, he fastidiously avoided promoting one religion or sect over another.
Further, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that Washington presided over decided that no religious qualifications—”no religious test”—may ever be a criterion for attaining national office. This provision of the Constitution protects from official stigma not only those of different religious beliefs but also those who believe in no deity.
In his 1789 proclamation, President Washington listed the blessings for which his countrymen should be thankful. As we gather with our family and friends, we Americans still have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving—including the wisdom and foresight of the founders’ remarkable vision of religious freedom.
Brian W. Walsh is executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.