Protecting Religious Liberty: A Comparative Analysis of the Educational Philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and John Courtney Murray, SJ
Seamon, Erika B., Journal of Church and State
Only the educated are free. - Epictetus
Thomas Jefferson and John Courtney Murray, SJ, lived in different centuries and were part of admittedly contrasting traditions and communities, yet they both spent a significant portion of their lives dedicated to the same kindred endeavors- pursuit of religious liberty and the search for truth. This is reflected in their philosophies on education. Because neither man is particularly known for his educational theories, it may seem peculiar to hone in on this aspect of their work. However, a nuanced comparison of their educational philosophies and their perspectives on the relationship between liberty, education, and citizenship proves edifying. What emerges is that, although both Jefferson and Murray agree that liberty depends upon an educated citizenry, they disagree on the type of education required and the source of that education, particularly in matters of religion. Ultimately, what develops is a sense that liberty in the United States is not preserved through either Jefferson's vision of secular education or Murray's Catholic humanism but through an enduring tension that lies between the two.
Five aspects of Jefferson and Murray's work will be examined: (1) the relationship between God and liberty, (2) the significance of the citizen and the laity, (3) the social role of the citizen and the laity, (4) the place of education relative to the church and state, and (5) the academy and the development of truth.1 Understanding where their philosophies converge and diverge will inform the final thoughts and conclusions.
Contributions of Jefferson and Murray
Thomas Jefferson (1 743 - 1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which contains the seminal ideals of the nation; he was instrumental in securing religious liberty in Virginia through his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom; and he established the University of Virginia, the first nonsectarian public university. Although Jefferson was also the first secretary of state, the second vice president, and the third president of the United States, it was the three accomplishments listed in the previous sentence that Jefferson chose for the epitaph on his gravestone.2
Jefferson was a religious anomaly in a postcolonial Virginia that was governed by Anglicans (Episcopalians) and populated by growing groups of Baptists and Presbyterians. Jefferson did not consider himself an atheist or an infidel, as he was often accused throughout his political career; however, he did reject the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, and much of the dogma defined by the Catholic and Protestant traditions. He believed that "a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer [Jesus] . . . , before his principles were departed from . . . and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state."3 The Jefferson Bible reflected what he believed to be the true messages of Jesus, before the early church fathers and reformers like Luther and Calvin perverted his words.4 Jefferson self-identified as a Christian. He was not against Jesus or Christianity; he was against what he believed to be distortions of the messages of Jesus and the intent of the Christian religion. In a letter to his long-time friend Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress for fifteen years, Jefferson wrote: "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw."5
Calvin had utterly and completely distorted God, in Jefferson's view. He wrote to John Adams that Calvin was "indeed an Atheist, which I [Jefferson] can never be." This was because Calvin "worshipped a false God." Jefferson rejected Calvin's five points and went as far as to say that "[i]t would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. …