Thomas Jefferson and religious freedom

There is a lot of talk these days about Thomas Jefferson and religion. He is cited as the source of “separation between church and state” in discussions of the first amendment. However, this is taken out of context. Not only is separation of church and state not anywhere in the fist amendment, Jefferson only used the phrase once. It was in a personal letter.

As for the Constitution, Jefferson was in Europe at the time the Constitution was written. Many mistakenly assume since he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he also wrote the Constitution. He had nothing to do with it’s writing or ratification. Later when asked about parts of it, he said he was unqualified to answer because he wasn’t there. So if Jefferson wasn’t there, and wouldn’t talk about religion and the Constitution himself, why is he used today to wrongly defend a position he himself refused to take?

Jefferson was in favor of total freedom of religion. Jefferson lived in a time when countries forced their citizens to belong to a “state” church. Persecution by the state for those who believed differently was real. Jefferson didn’t like that. He wanted people to be free to believe any way they chose without interference by the state either for or against. This is the non-establishment part. The state should not force religion upon its citizens. Nor should it limit expression of religion.

Today we are quick to embrace the first part. However, we have greatly failed in the second. It isn’t an either or. But instead is a balance of both. This is true freedom of religion. Freedom is religion includes the freedom of atheists and others not to believe. To force the atheistic view above all religions is for the state to enforce atheism, which is actually a form of religion in that it’s a belief in no religion or God.

An atheistic state is the lead up to socialism and even communism. The state determines what is right and wrong. It begins by placing the desires of the few above the freedoms of the many. Thomas Jefferson understood the danger in this.

Now Texas is rewriting it’s history program to get rid of teaching about Thomas Jefferson. That way no one will know when he is incorrectly cited or taken out of context. The danger is that since Texas is such a large state, textbook revisions to accommodate their new program will likely be sold to other states.  Thus, eliminating Jefferson there as well.

I would urge you to learn more about our founding fathers so you will better know how precious and precarious our freedoms are. Start by reading the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights so you know exactly what’s in them yourself. Despite their importance, they aren’t very long. Perhaps our current lawmakers should read them as well to learn about how to be brief and to the point in writing law.

There’s also some great audio recordings about Jefferson. One is by Jim Weiss. Another is a 2 part episode of Focus on the Family. They also have a DVD. Even if you support the separation of church and state, you should do your homework on the true history of this idea. If you think it’s in the Constitution, you’re in for a surprise because that phrase isn’t mentioned anywhere in it.


6 Responses

  1. The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the underlying principle of the First Amendment and the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution. That the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and later learned they were mistaken. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state. I commend it to you.

  2. Great quote, bu you may have missed part of my point. I was mainly focusing on those who mistakenly use Jefferson as an authority on separation. Why would he have written about God and included “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and close with “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” if he wanted a totally secular government? No. Jefferson understood all power comes from God, but people should be free to worship (or not) as they see fit without interference in any way by the government.

    Madison definitely was more in favor of separation. He was also for a strong centralized government whereas Jefferson was more for small government with individual and state rights.

    Yes, the government is not to establish a national religion. Non-establishment isn’t separation though. The government shouldn’t force us to reject our chosen religion either. It needs to be a balance. People need to be free to express their religion anywhere without fear of persecution. If you don’t want to believe, fine. If you do, that should be fine too. This is the point of the non-establishment clause. Government is to be hands-off. Instead, modern interpretation has placed undue restrictions on the public expression of religion. Government should neither promote nor hinder religion. Unfortunately, all I see it doing recently is hindering.

    There is a distinction between establishing a religion (whereby the government says what and how everyone must believe) and simply allowing religious freedom no matter the form or place of expression. The first is definitely wrong. The later is one of our basic human rights. As long as all religions are granted equal freedom of expression, the government shouldn’t interfere. If people choose to worship in public and public places, the should be allowed to do so as long as all groups are granted equal access. I think we have gone overboard in excluding and starting to limit religious expression. Many are incorrectly using Jefferson to base their ideas. This is why we need to educate our youth on our country’s history, both the facts and the reasons behind them in the culture of that time.

    I see a lot of it based upon fear in our lawsuit happy nation. Rather than appear to establish a religion, they go so far as to exclude and limit religious expression. Thereby violating the First Amendment they are attempting to follow. It’s a nice catch-22 many people don’t recognize because they don’t know for themselves what the First Amendment really says. The fact that the separation phrase isn’t in there IS important, especially to those who have read it. To say it is only a metaphor is opening a huge can of interpretive worms, leaving the entire Constitution open to any free interpretation so long as you can make a good argument in favor of your case.

    If I seem to be babbling or saying the same thing, it’s almost midnight so I’d better go to bed now.

  3. The religiosity of the various founders, while informative, is largely beside the point when assessing the nature of our government. Whatever their religions, the founders drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

    When discussing separation of church and state, it is critical to distinguish between the “public square” and “government.” The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. Students, for instance, are free to pray or otherwise exercise their religion in school as long as they do so in a time, manner, and place that does not interfere with school programs and activities.

    The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

  4. Doug,
    Did you know that there was actually a Congressional vote as to whether or not to have a strictly secular government and it failed? I’ll see if I can find the reference for you later. I found that interesting.

    I think I see what you’re saying now and we seem to be saying very similar things. The problem I’m seeing is that difference you mention beween the “town square and government” isn’t clear for many. As a result all public displays of religion are under scrunity and often attack or banned. The laws need to be secular, however asking someone to check their religious/ethical views at the door is unpractical.

  5. You are right to note that many people have a less than complete or accurate understanding of the principle of separation of church and state and how it is applied in various circumstances. The Wake Forest paper was prepared for just that reason–to summarize the law as currently stated and implemented by the courts. Even those who know the law can reasonably disagree on how it should apply in some circumstances. It’s just not always easy.

  6. I don’t see many extremest on this issue (on either side) wanting to be properly supported historically. Since the Constitution is a historical document, that is a must. It must be applied to both the content and context of the time in which it was written, not modern interpretation of historical views, which is very difficult since the primary culture has changed so much in the past 200 years. This is why educational revisionism is so upsetting. Removing Jefferson and other founding fathers from the curriculum is going to further that misunderstanding. Yes, Jefferson was a Christian. But he was also one of the great founding fathers of our country. Both are historical facts, however unpleasant for some. It was his faith and understanding of persecution (both secular and religious going on at the time) that led him and others to want to form our new nation.

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