Seven Presidents Who Championed and Protected Religious Freedom

February 12, 2021
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by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read + quiz

Pledging to protect and defend the Constitution is the most essential part of a U.S. President’s job…and protecting our nation’s founding document means safeguarding the First Freedom outlined in the Constitution—religious liberty.

In honor of President’s Day, we compiled a list of the U.S. presidents who best championed religious freedom.

Jefferson GEORGE WASHINGTON (1789-1795))

“The establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive which induced me . . .” — George Washington, 1783

As General of the Continental Army, George Washington helped establish the US Army Chaplain Corps, which continues to meet the spiritual needs of American military members to this day.

Washington personally favored Anglicanism, but promoted religious tolerance. For example, he reproached soldiers engaging in anti-Catholic behavior. As President, he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island assuring them that the government “gives bigotry no sanction” and “persecution no assistance.” He made similar assurances to Baptists, Quakers, and others.

Adams JOHN ADAMS (1797-1801)

“Nothing is to be more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.” — John Adams, 1812

John Adams wrote extensively on theology and the importance of religious belief in securing freedom. When British authorities encroached on liberties Adams saw as exclusively derived from God, he supervised the writing of the Declaration of Independence, which states that all rights come from God.

As President, Adams continued the strong policy of religious liberty begun by Washington.

Jefferson THOMAS JEFFERSON (1801-1809))

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable Rights…” — Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence (principal writer), 1776

The debate over Thomas Jefferson’s alleged deism obscures more important facts about his role as a champion of religious liberty. For one, Jefferson had no problem with the federal government being informed by, and encouraging, religious activity in society. He believed religious activity to be beneficial to America, and adamantly opposed federal interference in religious free exercise.

What about his famous “wall of separation between church and state” phrase? Today it’s often taken out of context and misused. Jefferson was actually saying the “wall” must keep government from interfering with religious exercise.

Madison JAMES MADISON (1809-1817)

“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or in any pretext infringed.” — James Madison, 1789

The “Father of the U.S. Constitution” believed government should be informed by human nature. Madison himself believed that people are made in God’s image and endowed with dignity and rights—and yet imperfect and not to be trusted with power. From that view came the checks and balances in American government, which are vital to religious liberty.

Lincoln ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1861-1865)

“He, from Whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1865

Lincoln might make the Honor Role for his Second Inaugural Address alone—essentially, a sermon on God’s sovereignty, now etched in stone at the nation’s most visited memorial.

Lincoln advanced religious liberty by openly discussing theological matters from the White House. His example defies arguments that religion and state were radically separate in U.S. history.

Reagan RONALD REAGAN (1981-1989)

“Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant, and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.” — Ronald Reagan, 1983

Considered the first conservative Christian president to serve in the era of secular modernism, Ronald Reagan bolstered traditional moral values and achieved several victories for religious freedom. For example, he:

  • Supported judicial and legislative action to restore prayer and other religious activity to public schools, including the 1984 Equal Access Act
  • Left a federal judiciary populated with constitutionalist judges who largely ruled in favor of religious freedom
  • Accelerated the careers of countless champions of religious liberty in the Justice Department
Clinton BILL CLINTON (1993 – 2001)

“Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.” — Bill Clinton, 1993

In 1993, Bill Clinton signed one of the most important religious freedom laws in modern American history: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). For over 25 years, RFRA has been a cornerstone federal law for people of faith. The law says the government must accommodate people’s religious practices when possible, and gives citizens their day in court if the government violates their rights.

Additionally, Bill Clinton signed two other important religious freedom laws:

  • Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000): Protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.
  • International Religious Freedom Act (1998): Makes the protection of religious freedom a core objective of US foreign policy.


In commemoration of President’s Day, First Liberty looks at some influential quotes on the topic of religious liberty from our nation’s leaders.

Did you pay attention in history class or did you doze off? Let’s see how well you do in First Liberty’s religious freedom presidential quiz!

1. "Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected." Which President said it?

2. “Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.” Which President said it?

3. "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the conscience of others, always considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable." Which President said it?

4. “Religious liberty is a constitutional value of the highest order, and the Framers of the Constitution included protection for the free exercise of religion in the very first Amendment.” Which President said it?

5. "Religious freedom is a principle based not on shared ancestry, culture, ethnicity, or faith but on a shared commitment to liberty...Religious freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it also strengthens our Nation as a whole." Which President said it?

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