Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was the third President, and one of the Founding Fathers, of the United States of America. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served as the basis for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the ongoing attempt to proclaim the United States a Christian nation, many historical revisionists attempt to classify Jefferson as a Christian. This seems particularly ironic as Jefferson was accused of being an atheist and an enemy of religion by political opponents and ministers of his time. He has generally been considered a deist, though some have labeled him a Christian deist as he respected the moral tenets of Christianity yet rejected the idea that Jesus was divine.
He redacted a copy of the gospels of the Bible, removing references to miracles (which he rejected) and other supernatural claims, leaving the words and moral philosophy of Jesus. A partial quote from Jefferson, commenting on this book (later dubbed the "Jefferson Bible"), is often used to support the idea that he was a Christian:
- "...[the Jefferson Bible] is a document in proof that I am a real Christian"
A fine example of quote mining, the remainder of the quote gives important context to Jefferson's true position:
- "...that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw."
His rejection of orthodox Christianity did not sit well with his religious contemporaries, resulting in accusations that he was an infidel. Modern revisionists who label Jefferson a Christian are either ignorant of his views on Christianity or are intentionally misrepresenting his views in the hopes that these idealistic and anachronistic claims will be accepted.
Another quote which provides more insight into Jefferson's views on Christianity comes from his "Notes on Virginia:
- "I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature.....Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make half the world fools and half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the world"
On religious freedom
Jefferson was a true advocate of religious freedom and encouraged the complete neutrality of the government with respect to religion. In addition to the ideas presented in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and thanksgiving during his Presidency.
His private and public letters include many objections to any tie between organized religion and government and his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association includes the first reference to "a wall of separation":
- "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State."
This same sentiment is echoed in a letter to Virginia Baptists:
- "Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the 'wall of separation between church and state,' therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."