Jefferson's Religion

Article excerpt

Thomas Jefferson advocated government protection of religious practice rather than the protection of the government from the influence of Judeo-Christian principles.

When Miguel de Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" in 1605, he employed a turn of phrase that has become a popular modern idiom: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." The phrase has since evolved and been shortened, perhaps so much so that its original meaning has been obscured.

Cervantes was saying that one never knows if the pudding has been prepared correctly until it is tasted. Simply put, "Don't believe everything you read."

In the debate on separation of church and state, scholars from all sides have employed Thomas Jefferson in their arsenals, some citing his willingness to attend prayer services in federal buildings and others citing his contempt for organized religion and his opposition to the state's interference in his own religious thought life.

But just as Cervantes counseled, one should not judge the matter of Jefferson's opinions on religion or church-state separation before testing his thoughts, rather than the thoughts of men 200 years removed from his life and work.

Was Jefferson favorably disposed to Christianity? Did he believe that religious people should influence government? Was Jefferson a committed proponent of church-state separation and why? What did this son of the Enlightenment really mean when he wrote to Baptists in 1802 of the need for a "wall of separation" between the church and the state?

The opinions of the author of the Declaration of Independence -- a document that mentioned God on multiple occasions -- are most clearly manifest in his bill for establishing religious freedom in Virginia.

In the legislation (written in 1777, adopted in 1786), Jefferson wrote that coerced religious conformity only produces "habits of hypocrisy and meanness" leading to a corruption of true religion -- an act of offense to "its Holy author." Magistrates the world over, he wrote, had promoted false religion throughout history by compulsory taxation in support of churches.

Jefferson's motive for writing the act was, to the public, very simple: He believed that all men had the inalienable right to express their religious opinions and should not be forced to support a religious establishment, a common vestige of Old Europe. But the freedom to follow his own religious opinions, formed early in his life, was at stake in equal measure.

Calvinist 'dogma'

As a precocious child in the Fredericksville, Va., parish, Jefferson sat under the tutelage of a Scottish churchman steeped in Calvinism, a man he later described as completely "uninspired" in his educational methods. Jefferson showed his contempt for Calvinist theology -- and its teaching that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell -- when he described it as a collection of "metaphysical insanities" and "demoralizing" and "atrocious" dogma.

Jefferson favored ethical systems of thought over religious dogma. He believed, as the Greek philosopher Epicures wrote, that happiness was the goal of life. Happiness could come only through moral and noble living rather than through self-indulgence. The finer things of life, such as art, literature, good wine and philosophical conversation, were permissible as long as they were consumed with restraint, self-discipline, and moral judgment.

Jefferson once advised, "Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it."

As he was attracted to Epicurean philosophy, he also was attracted to Stoicism and its emphasis on subduing emotion. Merging these two philosophies, Jefferson argued that one should never overindulge in any activity and never allow emotion to supersede rational judgment. From this philosophical base, he pursued a government based on moral and political restraint. …