Recently, I had the privilege to appear as a guest on Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk Radio program. Much of the content dealt with the Doubting Thomas book I co-wrote with Dr. Mark Beliles. You can hear the broadcast here. The book makes the point that our third president was not a lifelong skeptic. In fact, when he was most useful to the country, from all outward appearances he was a believer in Jesus. In any event, Jefferson did not believe in the separation of God and state. He didn’t believe America—or at least America’s public arena—should be turned into a secular wasteland.
Here are portions of the book, which document that President Jefferson often met with ministers and worked with them and donated to their Christian causes. For example, in 1803, Congregationalist Rev. John Sergeant wrote again that summer to Jefferson on missions work among the Indians. And on October 31, 1803, he presented a “Treaty with Kaskaskia and other Tribes,” which provided federal funds for the construction of churches and salaries for Catholic priests and missionaries in the federal Illinois Territory. It said: “…whereas, The greater part of the said tribe have been baptised and received into the Catholic church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office…; And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church…”
Since a treaty was something under the president’s authority, it reflects on Jefferson’s thinking about the relationship of religion and government more so than legislation that originated in Congress. And using government money for supporting this work for Indians was apparently not a violation of separation of church and state to Jefferson because it did not violate the constitutionally-established authority given to states in the area of religious exercises—since the Indians were under the jurisdiction of the federal territorial government. And apparently at Jefferson’s direction, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn in the summer of 1804 allocated $300 in federal funds (about $7,200 modern equivalent) to help another Presbyterian missionary—Rev. Gideon Blackburn, the Superintendent of the Indian School in the Cherokee Country in Tennessee. Dearborn confirmed this aid as did Blackburn later in a letter to Jefferson saying that his “…Mission [had]…already obtained your patronage” when he later wrote Jefferson in 1807. Here’s a key to understanding Jefferson’s policies on church-state matters: If it did not intrude on the jurisdiction of the states, then it was not per se unconstitutional.