Jefferson Paved Way for Religious Freedom

Regardless of how heterodox Thomas Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs may have become at the end of his life, regardless of where he ultimately chose to spend eternity, regardless of whether or not he was a true Christian, Jefferson helped make a great contribution to humanity in paving the way for greater religious freedom. In this effort, he received much aid from his friend and colleague, James Madison.

However, today’s secularists are taking the work of Jefferson and Madison and using it to strip away religious freedom from believers (and ultimately everyone else, too). Many Jewish leaders and thinkers like Rabbi Daniel Lapin warn that Jews in America will lose their rights soon after the Christians lose theirs. Secularists are misreading both Jefferson and Madison—not only in terms of their writings but their actions.

One of the great contributions of Thomas Jefferson to the world is this: He gave religious freedom a major boost in America. This helped religious freedom blossom elsewhere as well as what began in America spread to other places. The brave Chinese dissidents who challenged China’s tyrants in Tiananmen Square quoted Jefferson as they called for liberty in the land of Mao. The most important aspect of the religious liberty championed by Jefferson is that it is rooted in a Christian theological base, and that it extends to all regardless of their beliefs.

When Jefferson died, he listed his three most important accomplishments, as he saw them. Writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was one of the three. It’s no exaggeration to say that Thomas Jefferson has a lot to do with the religious freedom we enjoy today or that we have historically enjoyed.

The interesting thing about it is that the Statute appeared to appeal to Jesus Christ (“the holy author of our religion”) as the source of freedom. It said:

“Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments . . . are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet choose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone. . . .”[1]

What this means is that the state is not to interfere with the conscience. Even God Himself leaves that up to the individual. In short, there is a theological (not secular) base for religious liberty.

[1] Bills Reported by the Committee of Revisors, 1779, [see bills 82-87], Actually, Jefferson’s initial draft did not begin with a reference to God but opened as follows: “Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed in their minds. . . .” The General Assembly replaced this with the famous opening words it has today. But Jefferson never distanced himself from this modification.

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