There has been a massive shift in the understanding of “the separation of church and state” in America. As a nation, we were founded for religious liberty, but now that freedom seems under attack by the forces of a militant secularism.
Just as an example. Recently, in Houston, city officials have sent out subpoenas, demanding certain ministers who have spoken out against homosexuality to hand over their sermons and emails. In Idaho, a husband and wife team who run a wedding chapel might have to go to jail and be fined because they refuse for conscience sake to conduct same-sex weddings. City officials upholding traditional stances on marriage or other issues have lately come under fire.
To paraphrase one professor of law, the First Amendment has been put on a search and destroy mission for any sneaky vestiges of religion left in public places.
Yet our founders, the same men who gave us the First Amendment, hired chaplains who say Christian prayers for the military and the legislatures at taxpayer expense. They proclaimed state and national days of prayer and thanksgiving. Thanksgiving itself is an annual reminder of our nation’s Christian heritage.
What’s happening today is in part because of a misreading of Jefferson, and it is our goal in this book to set the record straight. Suffice it to say that the Thomas Jefferson of history is not the Thomas Jefferson of the ACLU, People for the American Way, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, etc.
The separation of the institution of the church from the institution of the state, properly understood, is a biblical concept and was promoted by some of our founding fathers, including Jefferson and Madison. However, today’s “separation of church and state” is often defined in such ways as to essentially mean “state-sanctioned atheism”—something different than what the founders advocated. Groups like the ACLU actively promote the “state-sanctioned atheism” version of the separation of church and state. Many courts and public officials have bought into this vision, and we read about the results virtually every day in the news.
But is this even what Jefferson wanted? The real answer is no, even in his most liberal, skeptical phase of life. For instance, when he was president, Jefferson attended church on a regular basis at the Christian worship services held in the US Capitol building. You might ask, “But what about the ‘separation of church and state’?” He certainly didn’t understand it in the strict way it is often imposed today. Like the other founders, he understood it to mean that no one national denomination would lord if over the others. No one denomination would become the national church “by law established.”
FIVE DISTINCT PHASES OF JEFFERSON’S RELIGIOUS LIFE
In the book, we show that Jefferson went through five distinct religious phases in his life. In the first one, which lasted until 1788, he was by all signs that we can tell a practicing, believing Trinitarian Christian. This included in 1776 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and 1777 when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (passed in 1786).
In 1777, Jefferson helped establish an evangelical church. This was the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville. The patriotic Rev. Charles Clay, ordained as an Anglican, was an evangelical and the pastor of that church. For the first time in print ever, our book publishes two of Rev. Clay’s gospel sermons. Jefferson financially supported this church and wrote up its by-laws, a copy of which is included in our volume.
Both the Declaration and the Virginia Statute rest on theological foundations. Our nation’s birth certificate adopted July 4, 1776 states that our rights come from the Creator. What God giveth, the state is not free to taketh away. The Declaration of Independence says that we have God-given rights and they are not up to debate. The Virginia Statute begins with the statement that God has created the mind free. When government seeks to enforce religious conformity of belief or practice, all it does is “beget habits of hypocrisy.” Furthermore, says Jefferson, this is a “departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.” Because Jesus, “the holy author of our religion,” gave us religious freedom, who are we to deny it to others?
Many scholars say the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was a forerunner to the First Amendment. Jefferson and his compatriot James Madison were heroes to the evangelicals in their day because they were champions of religious freedom—not oppression of religion.
Later, Jefferson went through some doubting phases. Near the end of his life, we find him thinking in Unitarian ways about God, Jesus, the Trinity. But even in the last phase of his life, he was privately doubting, while publicly attending Trinitarian worship services, once the Episcopal church reopened in Charlottesville.
To be sure, by the end of his life, Jefferson seemed to question some of the key doctrines of the Christian faith. But many commentators tend to ascribe these beliefs for all of his 65 adult years. In reality, Jefferson was a constantly developing and changing person of faith.
Furthermore, the real important question is: Are the policies of today that are essentially fashioned in his name in line with what he himself would agree to? We think our book shows that they are not.
Jefferson did not view himself as an atheist nor a Deist; but he rather saw himself as one trying to save Christianity, as he understood it, from centuries of corruptions.
THE JEFFERSON BIBLE
Any fair reading of the faith of Thomas Jefferson should take in all sides of the story. When we examine Jefferson and the Bible, we see that he was overall a student of the Scriptures. We also see that he had bought into the philosophy, prevalent in Unitarian circles (and even some of the Restoration circles, popular in his area of Virginia in that day), that the Bible we have is corrupted. One of the leaders of the Restoration church movement was Alexander Campbell. He was anti-Trinitarian and anti-Calvinist and said that he wanted to save “the Holy Scriptures from the perplexities of the commentators and system-makers of the dark ages” and therefore (similar to Jefferson), published his own edition of the New Testament in 1826 to correct the alleged flaws and perversions. Campbell, however, is still treated today by the evangelical world as a legitimate Christian in American history. But Jefferson has not been treated with the same deference as Campbell. We believe they should be treated the same, but perhaps Jefferson with more grace since he was not trained in theology.
Jefferson felt that, despite such (alleged) corruptions, the morality of Jesus was the finest the world has ever seen. So, without getting into any metaphysical debates or issues, he wanted to focus his personal study on a digest of “the philosophy of Jesus.” Initially he did so in 1804 in an edition that he said, in his subtitle, was for the use of the Indians.
Later in 1819 or 1820, for his own use, he enlarged it about a third more and called it “the Life and Morals of Jesus.” This one included columns with the Greek, Latin, and French versions, as well as the King James Version of these various sayings of Jesus. Not all the miracles of Jesus were deleted from either version, however.
The skeptics of today who try to drive the Bible completely out of our schools today and out of the public arena often hide behind Jefferson to do their dirty work. I would love to see those same skeptics become regular readers of the moral teachings of Jesus that Jefferson was. Some reports indicated he studied Jesus and His teachings all the time, virtually every day. I cannot imagine that being the case among the atheist-type groups constantly suing to keep knowledge of the Good Book from impacting society today.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, not appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.” (To William Canby, September 18, 1813). So although Jefferson had an unorthodox approach to the Gospels, it is still a matter of public record that he greatly appreciated the teachings of Jesus Christ.
JEFFERSON AND THE CLERGY
Most clergy in Jefferson’s lifetime were not antagonistic to him. Only later did this begin to be popular in some historical works of clergy.
And similarly Jefferson was not universally opposed to the clergy. His anti-clericalism was clearly selective and focused, and for biographers to not make that distinction is unfair to Jefferson. Indeed, those that fail to make the distinction become the allies of his political enemies. Jefferson’s understanding of religious freedom is held by the vast majority of American evangelicals to this day. We do not favor a state church. Nor did he.
Despite outrageous comments from the pulpit during the acrimonious 1800 election, any fear that the people of New England may have had that they should hide their Bibles in case Jefferson were elected president proved completely baseless. The accusations against Jefferson’s faith in the 1800 election were not true. Disestablishing a state church is not the same thing as opposing a church.
Ironically, today, the secularists, often in Jefferson’s name, are creating a new state religion—a religion of atheism and humanism that has no problem squelching the conscience of believers. Jefferson himself would not agree with that. He once wrote: “On the contrary, we are bound, you, I, and every one, to make common right of freedom of conscience.”
Furthermore, our book documents that Jefferson had very good relations for the most part with hundreds of ministers, the vast majority of whom were Trinitarian Christians. We also document that he donated generously to all sorts of Christian causes.
SEPARATION OF GOD AND STATE?
The secularists of today have done a major disservice by twisting Thomas Jefferson’s doctrine of the separation of church and state to mean the separation of God and state. They are trying to remake the U. S. in the image not of its founders, even men like Jefferson (who was not an orthodox Christian), but in the image of the founders of the failed Soviet Union.
Likewise, modern biographers and commentators have misrepresented Jefferson by exaggerating the attacks of clergy against him and ignoring the overwhelming number of favorable relationships. They have fabricated a dominant and simplistic image of anticlericalism that is misleading and false. If any of this is done by those with a political agenda, we hope the reader will realize that there is no historical accuracy to the view that Jefferson hated the Christian clergy and wanted society purged from their influence.
While Jefferson was clearly not an orthodox believer by the end of his life, it is a myth to say that he was always a skeptic. Furthermore, Jefferson was a champion of freedom OF religion, not of freedom FROM religion.