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OC Premiere

George Washington and the Pursuit of Religious Freedom

    Mount Vernon—the historic home of George and Martha Washington—serves as a beacon of American values. As the most visited historical home site in the nation since the 1860’s, the site is meant to “preserve, educate and inspire” according to Washington scholar and Mount Vernon President and CEO Douglas Bradburn, PhD.

    Mount Vernon is bringing its newly produced film, George Washington and the Pursuit of Religious Freedom to the Merage Jewish Community Center on March 22. The film serves as a powerful catalyst for discussions surrounding the First Amendment, civic engagement and what religious liberty means in the 18th century and today.

    While we were taught that our Founding Fathers believed in the separation of church and state, in fact there were a lot of restrictions with different church doctrines governing different colonies. Washington grew up in Virginia under the Anglican Church of England in an environment where there was not freedom of religion or practice. Mt. Vernon’s Bradburn explains that in Virginia all residents were required to pay for and live under the moral laws and restrictions of the Anglican Church of England.

    As an adult and growing into his various leadership roles, Washington balked against the restrictions of the Church and British governance, becoming an advocate and military leader for the freedoms of the colonies and eventually as President leading the newly united states. 

    In 1790, now president, Washington visited the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. Following the visit, he wrote the now famous Touro Synagogue letter reinforcing the ideal of religious liberty in American life. Washington promised the synagogue more than mere religious tolerance, explaining that “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” The letter continued with the promise that “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 in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

    The Touro synagogue letter was particularly noteworthy as at the time no European monarch would ever express anything similar and according to Bradburn didn’t speak of religious tolerance for probably a century.

    The missive was one of many that Washington would write to various religious groups, from Baptist to Jewish, assuring them of their freedom to worship. That he was so committed to the principle of religious liberty at a time when several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official state-supported churches, is nothing short of revolutionary.

    Irvine resident and community philanthropist Irv Chase doesn’t recall when or where he first encountered the Touro letter. What he does remember, was his reaction, “At the time, in Europe, there were poll taxes, and Jews couldn’t vote. Here in America, they were welcome. Washington was going to make sure of that. And it wasn’t just important for Jews. He was saying, ‘I’m going to make sure that minority interests are protected.’”  Chase continues, “It floored me…George Washington set the tone for future presidents.”

    The son of Holocaust survivors and a lifelong student of American history, Chase, along with his wife Nancy, has made religious freedom the driving force behind their philanthropy. Chase credits his parents for inspiring what he calls his “patriotic philanthropy” and a passion for freedom to practice any religion, or none at all. The Chases are proud to have supported the making of the George Washington and the Pursuit of Religious Freedom film and to invite our community to experience it for free.

George Washington and the Pursuit of Religious Freedom
    West Coast film premiere—right here in Orange County!
Wednesday, March 22
Reception 5:30 PM  Film 6:00 PM
FREE to members and the community

    America was founded as a haven from those escaping religious persecution in Europe., but our nation’s greatest right—the right to practice one’s own religion—was not immediately guaranteed. This short film, directly from Mount Vernon, heralds the establishment of religious freedom in America.

    Led by Mt. Vernon CEO Doug Bradburn, Ph.D., this short film will be followed by a rich panel discussion touching on the First Amendment, civic engagement and what religious liberty means in the 18th century, as well as anti-Semitism then and today. Dr. Bradburn will be joined by Susan and Henry Samueli, who will share their insight and significant work combatting anti-Semitism, and Richard Brookhiser, a journalist, biographer and historian, most widely known for a series of biographies of America’s founders.

    Register at https://www.jccoc.org/events/2023/03/22/arts-culture/george-washington-and-the-pursuit-of-religious-freedom/. 

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