Legacy of Freedom: Jefferson, Madison and the Nation's Founders Left Us Church-State Separation. Can We Keep It? (Special Book Excerpt)

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson excelled as a political leader and architect of religious liberty, but he was a lousy prophet.

Jefferson once predicted that Unitarianism would become the dominant religion in the United States. He also believed the country would remain a largely agrarian society; he never foresaw the rise of sprawling urban metropolises.

What if Jefferson could see America today--a nation of 270 million people, the world's sole remaining superpower? What would he think?

Jefferson might have a lot to say about American foreign policy, economic strategy and even American popular culture. He would probably also have strong opinions about the state of religious liberty in America. I can't say what he would think about the other issues, but if Jefferson were to look at religious freedom in America today, I believe he would be pleased.

During his lifetime, Jefferson spoke eloquently about the need for religious liberty for all people--not just Christians. He would be delighted to see an America that has welcomed Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, non-believers and others. He would be pleased by the diversity among the Christian denominations as well. The Sage of Monticello would be happy to see these groups living side by side in peace.

Jefferson was a strong advocate of the idea that there must never be force or coercion in matters of religion. If you visit the Jefferson Memorial in Washington today, you will see chiseled on the wall a famous quote from Jefferson: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Jefferson made that statement in reaction against ultra-conservative religious leaders in New England who opposed him politically and opposed his views on church-state separation. Any assertion that Jefferson would find common cause with today's Religious Right is laughable. Not only would Jefferson disagree with Religious Right theology, he would adamantly oppose its political views and agenda. Jefferson would recognize today's Religious Right as the spiritual descendants of the narrow-minded clergy he swore "eternal hostility" against so long ago. He would treat the Religious Right with similar disdain.

Unfortunately, too many American political leaders today, while pretending to honor Jefferson's legacy in speeches, labor to tear it down through their actions. Jefferson's wall of separation is under assault--and not just from the Religious Right. Political leaders and judges have joined the attack.

Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest testaments to human liberty ever penned. More than 220 years after it was written, the Declaration still inspires oppressed people today. If that was all Jefferson had ever done, his name would still ring down through the ages--but of course he did much more: Jefferson served as ambassador to France, governor of Virginia and president of the United States. He founded the University of Virginia and authored Virginia's Statute for Religious Liberty.

Jefferson was a prodigious thinker with an innate curiosity about the world around him. He was a man of keen intellect. Religious freedom undergirded by the separation of church and state is just one of his legacies to the American people.

Attacks on separation of church and state assail the legacy of James Madison as well. Madison is one of the most important founders, but his contributions are often overlooked and tend to be overshadowed by his less-than successful presidency.

Jefferson could write quite eloquently about religious freedom and the need for church-state separation, but in many ways it was Madison who perfected the concept. Madison's prose in the Memorial and Remonstrance--his famous attack on church taxes in Virginia--is workmanlike and to the point. It's less flowery than what Jefferson would have penned. But Madison's words did the trick and turned back a dangerous bill. …