Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church, that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception.- George Washington (1732-1799), Letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Aug. 15, 1787, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton: 2005), pg. 193.
That quote nicely summarizes Washington's vision of religious pluralism, a vision that is evident throughout his career in public life, both as president and then elder-statesman of the young American Republic, and also earlier when he was the commander-in-chief of the fledgling Continental Army during the Revolution.
In 1775, the Continental Army invaded Canada in an effort to guarantee that colony's cooperation in American efforts to sustain relief from the British government short of overt independence. George Washington was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and he issued formal instructions to one of his field commanders, Colonel Benedict Arnold, regarding the proper deportment of the Continental troops on the subject of religion.
This was an issue in the Canadian campaign due to the strong anti-Catholic opinions that were then common among the vast majority of the American colonial population. The Canadians, at that time overwhelming French in language and culture, and Catholic in religion, therefore were possible targets of colonial bigotry in the field. In his Instructions to Arnold, dated September 14, 1775, Washington was clear and direct about the deference that was to be shown to the inhabitants of Canada in regard to their religious practices:
As the Contempt of the Religion of a Country by ridiculing any of its Ceremonies or affronting its Ministers or Votaries has ever been deeply resented—You are to be particularly careful to restrain every Officer & Soldier from such Imprudence & Folly & to punish every Instance of it—On the other Hand as far as lays in your Power you are to protect & support the free Exercise of the Religion of the Country & the undisturbed Enjoyment of the Rights of Conscience in religious Matters with your utmost Influence & Authority[.]Two critical points are worth making about Washington's orders. First, in order to prevent resentment towards the Continentals, American soldiers were to be prevented, under punitive discipline if necessary, from attacking the Catholic religion then established in Canada. Without mentioning Catholicism by name, Washington prohibited any action that would result in the "ridiculing" of any Catholic clergy or "Ceremonies." There was to be no overt acts of mockery or contempt shown to Catholicism by the Continentals. The American army would be respectful, even towards religious views, worship and ministers to which the vast majority of American colonials at the time objected.
Second, in addition to demonstrating respect, the Continentals were to "protect and support the free Exercise of the Religion of the Country and the undisturbed Enjoyment of the rights of Conscience in religious matters." Washington's orders left no ambiguity -- the American intervention in Canada was to have no deleterious consequences for the Catholics there. Yet, at the same time, Washington couched his language to apply not simply to the Catholic population, but to all people who sought to enjoy their "rights of Conscience in religious matters." As the army would not mock or attack Catholics for their faith, so too it would not enforce Catholicism.
While Washington issued his orders to Arnold as an act of military strategy to avoid alienating the Catholic population of a fellow colony with which the Continentals desperately wanted to be allied, his orders show a commitment to deeper religious liberty than what military expedience required. Respect for a despised religion, not simply tolerance. Liberty not only for the majority religion but for all. While the American intervention in Canada proved to be a failure in winning Canadian support for the American cause, Washington's orders regarding the army's conduct in regard to religion set a pattern of prudential and principled judgment. In this regard, as in so many others, Washington proved himself to be the Father of Our Country.