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Christian Support for American Jews Began at the Founding

Christian Support for American Jews Began at the Founding

For an audio read by the author, please click here.

This essay first appeared in the December 12, 2023 Epoch Times.

The Hamas terror attack of October 7 triggered an overwhelming display of support among American Christians for Jews and for Israel. This continues a long history of support, dating back to the American Founding. As a Jew, I gratefully acknowledge it.

Speaking of Christian good will toward Jews and Judaism may seem odd, because we so often focus on anti-Semitism. Of course, there has been plenty of that, and the ugliness often has been perpetrated by self-styled “Christians.”

But there is a very different American tradition as well. It is symbolized at this season of the year by the intertwining of Hanukkah and Christmas. The tradition surfaces in the historical records about the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and has remained dominant throughout our history.

The Constitution Opens Political Office to Jews

Contrary to a common myth, few of the Constitution’s framers were deists or skeptics. Nearly all were Christians, including two Catholics. Benjamin Franklin often is cited as a deist, but as his famous plea for daily prayer at the convention demonstrated, he had long since abandoned deism. At the time of the convention, he held a non-Christian belief in a personal God: in fact, his faith was very close to Judaism.

In 1787, each state required that all political officeholders be Christians or—like Franklin—at least willing to admit that the New Testament, if not fully true, had been divinely inspired. During the proceedings, Jonas Phillips, a leader of the Philadelphia Jewish community, wrote to convention president George Washington. Following is part of what Phillips wrote. (The spelling variations are in the original):

“It is well known among all the Citizens of the 13 united States that the Jews have been true and faithful whigs [i.e., supporters of the Revolution], and during the late Contest with England they have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lifes and fortunes, they have supported the Cause, have bravely faught and bleed for liberty which they Can not Enjoy—

“Therefore if the honourable Convention shall in ther Wisdom think fit and alter the said oath and leave out the words to viz—”and I do acknoweledge the scripture of the new testement to be given by devine inspiration” then the Israeletes will think them self happy to live under a goverment where all Relegious societys are on an Eaquel footing—I solecet this favour for my self my Childreen and posterity and for the benefit of all the Isrealetes through the 13 united States of america.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the finished Constitution contained this remarkable provision (Article VI, Section 3):

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Eighteenth-century Anglo-American law required that for one to take a valid oath or affirmation, one must believe in God. The law had long recognized that Jews and other non-Christian theists could take valid oaths. But now, for perhaps the first time in history, a nation’s leaders proposed opening political office to all theists—not merely those subscribing to one or more favored religions.

Christian Founders Push Back Against Anti-Semitism

We do not know for certain, although we can infer, that Phillips’ letter triggered the Constitutional Convention’s decision to ban religious tests. But other indications of the Founders’ favor toward American Jews are unmistakable.

Each state held a popularly-elected convention to ratify (or reject) the Constitution. At the Massachusetts and North Carolina gatherings, some of the Constitution’s opponents grumbled that the document would permit Jews and other non-Christians to hold public office.

For this, the Constitution’s supporters made no apologies. On the contrary, they responded aggressively—decrying intolerance and pointing out that there were good men of all faiths. At the Massachusetts convention, some of the delegates who took the lead in making the case for religious inclusiveness were Christian clergymen (pdf).

Christian Leaders Include Jews in Constitutional Celebrations

After New York State ratified the Constitution, New York City civic leaders planned a day of celebration. They inadvertently chose a Jewish fast day—Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Jerusalem temples. When the Jewish community pointed out that the chosen time would prevent them from participating, the organizers moved the day to accommodate them.

A similar ceremony was held in Philadelphia. It was marked by a festive parade through the city. Among the eyewitnesses was Dr. Benjamin Rush, America’s leading physician, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and among the Constitution’s ratifiers. Here is part of what he wrote:

“The Clergy formed a very agreeable part of the Procession—They manifested, by their attendance, their sense of the connection between religion and good government. They amounted to seventeen in number. Four and five of them marched arm in arm with each other, to exemplify the Union. Pains were taken to connect Ministers of the most dissimilar religious principles together, thereby to shew [sic] the influence of a free government in promoting christian charity. The Rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution, which opens all its power and offices alike, not only to every sect of christians, but to worthy men of every religion.”

George Washington States His Support

On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution—the last of the original 13 states to do so. Three months later, President George Washington visited Rhode Island. On Aug. 18, he took time to write to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. The letter celebrated American progress beyond the mere religious “toleration” acknowledged by British law and toward recognizing that freedom of religion was not merely something to be tolerated, but an inherent human right.

President Washington’s letter concluded:

“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 figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

What is extraordinary about these displays of friendship is that they occurred at a time when people tended to be religiously isolated, so it was easy to demonize those of a different faith. But the American Founders rose above that.

A Lesson Learned

It is almost always wise, as well as decent, to respond positively to offers of friendship. This is particularly important for a small religious minority.

American Jews have friends everywhere, but those friends often are too little appreciated. Many American Jews have placed their trust instead in left-leaning political groups, universities, and foundations. In some cases, we have given enormous amounts of help to people who surreptitiously hate us.

In the wake of October 7, those institutions failed us and the hate came out into the open.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Christians—and particularly conservative Christians—stuck with us. For that we should be grateful.

Rob Natelson