American presidents have played a major role in fostering religious liberty at home and abroad. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison strongly supported the separation of church and state and freedom of worship. Washington used his enormous influence as both commander in chief and president to promote freedom of worship and to improve relations among America’s various religious bodies. Through his words and actions, he helped ensure that liberty of conscience prevailed in the United States.
Jefferson and Madison led efforts to establish religious liberty in Virginia and frame the First Amendment. Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” expressed their shared conviction that denying equal exercise of religious freedom to all citizens offended God. As president, both Jefferson and Madison worked to help religious liberty flourish in the new nation.
Building on their foundation, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all ardently advocated religious freedom. As they confronted the demise of communism or terrorist threats and acts, they strove to increase opportunities for worship and religious expression in the U.S. and overseas.
Reagan sought to provide greater spiritual opportunities for the residents of communist nations. He insisted that many living behind the Iron Curtain had a deep desire to worship God and grow spiritually and that, despite communist antagonism, a religious revival was occurring there. While overthrowing this repressive system was his ultimate goal, Reagan also strove to advance this revival by calling for increasing the freedom of citizens of communist countries to worship God.
Like Reagan and many other chief executives, George H. W. Bush argued that the Founding Fathers’ religious convictions helped shape the government they crafted. The American republic “was built on their faith in Almighty God.” Convinced that all people “are equal in the sight of their Creator,” they devised a system of government that protected “the God-given rights of every individual.” Like them, Bush believed “in separation of church and state, but not in the separation” of “moral values and state.” The First Amendment, he argued, protected “people against religious intrusions by the state,” not “the state from [people’s] voluntary religious activities.”
Like his two Republican predecessors, Bill Clinton fervently advocated religious freedom domestically and internationally, most notably through the passage of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, his 1995 guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools, and his 1997 Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace. Clinton called religious liberty the first and “most precious of all American liberties,” which undergirded other American freedoms.
Sponsored by 60 Senators and 170 Congressmen, strongly supported by numerous religious groups, and decisively passed by both Houses, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permitted the federal government to restrict people’s religious freedom only if it had a compelling interest for doing so and only by using the “least restrictive means” to further its interests.
Clinton also strove to increase the role of religion in public schools. Religion, he insisted, was too important to America’s history and heritage and promoting traditional values to be kept out of public schools. He urged teachers to discuss the teachings of various religions and their contributions to history, values, music, and art.
George W. Bush also strongly promoted religious liberty. “Religious freedom,” he declared, “is a cornerstone of our Republic, a core principle of our Constitution, and a fundamental human right.” When the Founding Fathers framed the Bill of Rights, the “first liberty they enshrined was the freedom of religion.” They recognized that people’s “most basic freedom,” he asserted, “is the right to worship” God as they see fit. “Freedom of worship is central to the American character” and enabled people of different faiths to practice their “beliefs without fear” and live together in peace, tolerance, and humility. Moreover, Bush insisted, religious liberty empowered people to be instruments of God’s love. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack, he praised citizens for exemplifying “the American tradition of tolerance and religious liberty,” which had long “welcomed and protected generations of immigrants from every faith and background.”
Religious liberty has rightly been called the first liberty. All other freedoms – political, economic, social, and cultural – are closely intertwined with religious liberty. Since the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, America has led the world in providing religious freedom by separating church and state and guaranteeing citizens the right to worship as they desire. Our presidents have ensured that Constitutional provisions have been followed at home and have exhorted other nations to give their residents greater religious freedom. As the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union imploded, Eastern European nations threw off the yoke of communism, a new world system evolved, and the United States and other nations faced terrorist threats and acts. Reagan, Clinton, and the two Bushes championed religious liberty and contributed to its expansion in many parts of the world.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).