In 1790, President George Washington wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, affirming the values of tolerance and religious freedom that he saw as the bedrock of the country that he had had helped found, and done so much to secure. “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy,” Washington wrote, “a policy worthy of imitation.” He continued:
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. 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. [...]
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 under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The debate over the Ground Zero Mosque is, in fact, a debate over American values. Newt Gingrich has been trying to claim that the construction of the mosque is “explicitly at odds with core American and Western values,” while Mayor Bloomberg correctly noted yesterday that “we would betray our values if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else.” If the conservatives who have been attacking the mosque think that George Washington was wrong about American tolerance and religious freedom, let them say so explicitly.