Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Jefferson Believed Church-State Separation Would Strengthen Religion in America

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Jefferson Believed Church-State Separation Would Strengthen Religion in America

Article excerpt

When Newt Gingrich said that one of his first priorities was to put prayer back in public schools, he enlisted Thomas Jefferson as a supporter. In the Declaration of Independence, he noted, Jefferson wrote that men's rights had come from "their creator."

"Voluntary school prayer is not ancillary," Gingrich said. "It is the core of being American."

Gingrich used to be a history teacher. But there could hardly be a more grotesque misreading of history than the notion that Jefferson would favor government action to arrange religious observance of any kind.

At his orders, Jefferson's tombstone at Monticello describes him not as a former president but as the father of the University of Virginia and the author of the Declaration and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He took special pride in the latter, a law that he and James Madison struggled for nine years to get through the legislature.

The Virginia Statute not only rejected official support for a single, established church. It forbade neutral support for all denominations, which is what some Americans want government to do today. The statute's principles informed the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

Anyone unfamiliar with Jefferson's views - and their extraordinary strength - should read Merrill D. Peterson's essay in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It has powerful application to the school prayer debate.

Supporters of prayer legislation claim the country needs an affirmation of religious beliefs to give it a common sense of moral values. But Peterson writes that "the whole thrust of Jefferson's philosophy was to reject . . . any idea that a shared community of religious beliefs or of moral values, other than the value of freedom itself, was necessary to society."

Jefferson believed in God despite his dislike of priesthoods and his rejection of biblical revelation.

He believed that diversity of creeds and separation of church from state would strengthen religion in America. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.