Presidential Proclamations: The Chief Executives On Religious Liberty

The chief executives speak on separation of church and state.

It’s Presidents' Day. In honor of the holiday, I thought it would be interesting to pull together some quotes by our chief executives on church-state separation and religious freedom.

Most people know that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were great champions of church-state separation. But did you know that James K. Polk had some interesting things to say, as did U.S. Grant?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it provides some interesting food for thought. Enjoy!

George Washington: “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: a policy worthy of imitation. 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.” (Letter to Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I., August, 1790)

John Adams (commenting on blasphemy laws): “I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws.” (Letter to Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 23, 1825)

Thomas Jefferson: “[E]veryone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.” (Letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808)

James Madison: “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it, would be a most flagrant usurpation. I can appeal to my uniform conduct on this subject, that I have warmly supported religious freedom.” (Journal excerpt, June 12, 1788)

Andrew Jackson (explaining why he declined to call for official days of prayer and fasting): “I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government.” (Letter to the Synod of the Reformed Church of North America, June 12, 1832)

James K. Polk: “Thank God, under our Constitution there was no connection between Church and State.” (Diary entry, Oct. 14, 1846)

Millard Fillmore: “I am tolerant of all creeds. Yet if any sect suffered itself to be used for political objects I would meet it by political opposition. In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled.” (Address during 1856 presidential election)

Ulysses S. Grant: "Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the state nor nation shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate." (Speech to veterans of the Army of Tennessee, Sept. 30, 1875.)

James A. Garfield: “Whatever help the nation can justly afford should be generously given to aid the States in supporting common schools; but it would be unjust to our people and dangerous to our institutions to apply any portion of the revenues of the nation, or of the States, to the support of sectarian schools. The separation of the Church and the State in everything relating to taxation should be absolute.” (Letter accepting presidential nomination, July 12, 1880)

Theodore Roosevelt: “I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be nonsectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools.” (Speech, Oct. 12, 1915)

John F. Kennedy: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” (Speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Sept. 12, 1960)

Lyndon B. Johnson: “I believe in the American tradition of separation of church and state which is expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. By my office – and by personal conviction – I am sworn to uphold that tradition.” (Interview with Baptist Standard, October 1964)

Jimmy Carter: “I believe in the separation of church and state and would not use my authority to violate this principle in any way.” (Letter to Jack V. Harwell, August 11, 1977)