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. While Jefferson did not want government to institute any religion, he did view religion as a positive right, a right which the government should take substantial steps to actively protect. Consider Bill No. 84, which was introduced into the Virginia assembly, penned by Jefferson. This bill had a variety of provisions, among which were “exempting clergymen from being arrested while conducting religious services in any place of worship…and also authorized severe punishments, including imprisonment and amercement, for disturbers of public worship or citizens laboring on Sunday.” These laws were meant to affirm the government’s responsibility to protect acts of worship. There were several laws like this that were introduced into the Virginia state assembly by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and while not all of them passed, they are important to note because they do show that many of the founding fathers did not necessarily have the same idea of a “wall of separation” that exists today.
A better idea of the background in which Thomas Jefferson was operating under is necessary to fully understand his ideas on the relationship between church and state. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson describes with horror the treatment of the Quakers at the hands of the theocratic colonies that had been set up in 17th and 18th century America. With this bloody background of religious persecution, Thomas Jefferson, along with many other founding fathers felt that simple government neutrality toward religion was not enough to protect the rights of people to practice. However, they were terrified of going too far in the other direction and establishing a religion. They eventually seemed to settle on this middle ground of active government involvement in the protection of religious liberties and freedoms, while at the same time not explicitly establishing one over the other.
Sustainable evidence as to Thomas Jefferson’s views on the establishment of a religion by government can be found in his arguments on how to defend religion. Jefferson felt that the way to get to the truth of any matter would be to foster and encourage free thought, logic, debate and reason. Thomas Jefferson felt that if anybody were to engage in rational inquiry, they would eventually find the truth of religion, which he seems to grant in the Notes on the State of Virginia, to be Christianity. Christianity thrives in a state of rational thought and critical thinking, Jefferson argues, for it was the free inquiry promoted by the Roman Empire that permitted Christianity to grow in the first place, and the free inquiry and rational thought of 14th and 15th century Europe that allowed for “corruptions of Christianity” to be “purged away.” Truth, Jefferson said, could stand on its own, and that “it is error alone which needs the support of government.” And thus, he argued directly against an establishment of a state religion, because this would halt rational thought and discussion, which would slow the pursuit toward truth, and he felt that anything that slowed the pursuit of truth was fundamentally bad.
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."