The Religious Legacy of Thomas Jefferson

Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  The 3rd President of the United States would be 267 years old today.  Jefferson is of course one of the most famous presidents to ever hold office and his list of accomplishments are impressive by any presidential standard.  It seems to me that he is best remembered for two things:  The Louisiana Purchase and the principle of “Separation of Church and State” (with Lewis and Clark being a close third).

The expressed principle of the separation of church and state was written in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:

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”

Jefferson is referring here primarily to the so-called “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Although not widely known, the eager travelers making their way to the New World were certainly in search of a place where they could practice what they would consider to be an undefiled religion, but were not necessarily looking for a state that was disestablished from said religion.  At the time of Jefferson’s writing to the Danbury Baptist Association, two colonies were still operating with established churches.  Massachusetts would be the last colony to break away from the establishment of a church.  The foundational principle behind the need to break a church-state unity were the benefits that were bestowed upon those who claimed allegiance to the established church, and more importantly the lack of benefits to those who did not.  Thus, the establishment clause prohibits government from respecting or preferring one religion over another, and prohibits government from establishing a state religion.  In this way, Americans will not gain or lose benefits and privileges based on their religious preference.  Nor will Americans be coerced to “convert” to any religion, but may worship freely how they see fit (known as the Free Exercise clause). 

We can thank Jefferson, and others, who worked to see this conviction become the law of the land and protect our freedom as worshipers.  There is no question that progress had been made in this light as the years progressed from the beliefs and teachings of the reformers some two centuries previous.  Today I am able to worship without concern of losing life or liberty because of the influence and determination of a man like Jefferson.  For that, I am thankful.

What becomes interesting is how the phrase “separation of church and state” becomes a catch all for everything religion-minded in the world of government and politics.  Christians are branded heretics for voting based on their convictions because of “separation of church and state”, as well as any other religious minded people.  However, the intentions of Jefferson himself must have been motivated in part by his own self-interest and religion.

Although I am sure that Jefferson worked through this matter on principle as a whole and not based entirely on selfish motives, the fact remains that Jefferson never really knew what he believed when it came to faith.  However, he strongly knew what he didn’t believe, including the teachings of John Calvin, of which he labeled as “demonism.”  When you consider that the established church of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Haven, and Plymouth colony were all founded by Calvinist Puritans, then the potential additional motives of Jefferson should become clear.  We have to remember that when Jefferson, Madison, and others were thinking through the Bill of Rights, there was no Bill of Rights to lean against as a standard for thinking.  And an entire world history of state-established churches stood against them.  So, the principle that Jefferson and others were working from was their own personal conviction concerning how the government of these new United States should view religion.  We can say then in part that Jefferson’s bold conviction that this new country should not show preferential treatment to any religion came about because Jefferson himself was unsure of his own religious preference and uncertainty that religion was of any value.  I am not suggesting that if Jefferson were a devout Calvinist, Methodists, or anything else that he would have not still held the personal conviction of religious freedom from government.  I am saying that we cannot ignore the way his own heart and mind must have influenced his feelings for the new country he loved so much.  Therefore, we have to be careful when citing the “separation of church and state” as a reason to not vote based on personal conviction when the very phrase used to support such a position came about because of personal conviction.

Finally, we can only hope that Jefferson turned to Christ in his last days.  He more than once labeled himself as a “sect unto himself” which is contrary to the message of the Bible.  Interestingly, it is the same message we hear from folks today.  Nothing changes.

So a big thank you to Thomas Jefferson for serving our country and helping us move forward.  I am pretty sure I would have voted for ya. 

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One Reply to “The Religious Legacy of Thomas Jefferson”

  1. You might think me a tiny bit prejudiced , but that was an awesome entry, Philip. I know that you had to know I would surely enjoy and endorse the information, the logical conclusion and the Christian Spirit in which you wrote it. I miss you.

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