Yesterday I received an email from a reader who wanted to know my thoughts on Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. This topic has been a subject of interest to me and I have spent a great deal of time examining his writings on faith and religion. My next manuscript is titled Faith and Freedom in Fredericksburg: Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and will present Thomas Jefferson’s time at Fredericksburg in 1777, his meeting at Weedon’s Tavern in which he agreed to author the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the story surrounding the writing of it, why Jefferson took so much pride in its completion, and how the results are commemorated to this day. Synopsis here. This will be my most challenging project to date and I have already begun to gather some excellent sources. I have also published several essays on TJ and religion over at The Jefferson Project and the Jefferson Today Blog and that is where this individual found me.
It’s a great question as the controversial subject of Thomas Jefferson’s own faith has been one of great debate and dissension. Unfortunately, it has also been hijacked, skewed, and manipulated to support a variety of political and social agendas. Folks on the Right claim that Jefferson was the fervent champion of Christian conservatism while folks on the Left claim that he hated organized religion. (The irony is that the conservatives overlook the fact that Jefferson and his peers were perhaps the biggest liberals in this nation’s history.)
Today, 184 years after his death, Jefferson still dominates the political spectrum as both Republicans and Democrats have molded him into their own image of American virtue and progressive enterprise. Over the last two years, the new Tea Party Movement has added their spin, morphing this Founder into some rebellious, anti-government icon. The truth of the matter is that ALL of these people are wrong if they think Jefferson was solely any of these things. It is an understatement to say that he was a complex man full of contradiction and hypocrisy and most historians that I know agree that he would not fit in on the Right or Left. Perhaps that is why his memory is manipulated by so many.
It is far too easy to selectively grab words from a man who penned thousands of insights and twist them in support of an argument. For every Jefferson quote used by these groups to support their claims, there are a dozen more opposite quotes that counter it. For example, one side cites Jefferson as saying “I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature” while the other uses “I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.” Athiests proudly claim Jefferson as one of their own due to his comment “I am of a sect by myself as far as I know” while Protestants claim his membership with ““Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern which have come under my observation, none appears to me so pure as that of Jesus.” Neither has exclusivity to the man.
It is enough to make your head spin, but that is a perfect example of the counter-complexity of an individual that has captivated our imagination for generations. The answer to this question is that I do not know exactly what Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs were. I’m not sure he even knew at times. All I can do is present what he said and accept the fact that he was not on the Right or Left, Christian or Atheist, Liberal or Conservative. He was ALL of these things in some regards and more.
This broad perspective goes for most of our Founding Fathers who practiced their own unorthodox faith during this unique period of enlightenment. By their very nature, they questioned everything and that was what made them both brilliant and dangerous. Religion was something that they had witnessed the perversion of and were determined to avoid in this new world of democracy. They knew that true religious freedom meant that all sects were equal in what would become the spiritual melting-pot of America. And they supported this notion regardless of their own personal beliefs.
This may upset some of my fellow Christians, but I do not believe that America was founded to be a Christian nation. I believe that it was founded on Christian principles, but specifically intended to be a refuge for all religious sects. This is what separates America from other countries who adhere to a single doctrine. Here, I as a Christian, practice my faith, while my Muslim neighbor practices his. It works and Jefferson would have approved. Additionally, I don’t believe that the Jefferson’s decree of the separation of church and state was intended to limit us in the pursuit of our spirituality. I think it was meant to do the opposite. This was the topic of an essay that I penned a few years back and may be the best answer that I can offer:
Jefferson's Religious Freedom by Michael Aubrecht
Originally written for The Jefferson Project [Nov. 4, 2008]
In today's age of divisive and unashamedly biased politics, it is very easy for our nation's citizens to become confused with regard to the principles upon which our country was founded. Both liberals and conservatives routinely lay claim to historical doctrines that they believe support, and in some cases mandate, their own political agendas. Perhaps no other government legislation is more misunderstood or contested than that which describes the "separation of church and state." Non-believers have traditionally argued that this declaration prohibits the recognition of any religion in the public arena, while believers from a variety of faiths argue that it does the exact opposite.
Most bothersome is the lack of knowledge that many people on both sides of the argument possess on the matter. The fact is that the U.S. Constitution, a completely secular document, contains no references to God, Jesus, or Christianity. It says absolutely nothing about the United States being officially founded as a Christian nation. On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence clearly refers to "the Creator" when it states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
That is as close as we come to a formal ‘God' endorsement. The fact of the matter is, the literal phrases "church and state," or "separation of church and state" do not appear anywhere in our nation's founding documents. Unfortunately, far too many people today believe that it does.
This does not mean that the Framers were anti-religious. In fact, many of the Founding Fathers belonged to one of the following denominations: Episcopalian/Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Dutch/German Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Huguenot, Unitarian, Methodist, and Calvinist, although not all were actively practicing. Many would more likely be considered Deists more than traditional Christians, and some even believed that the practice of organized religion was a sin in itself. Other Founders practiced a more traditional bible-based lifestyle and considered the open practice of a chosen faith a "must" for the new country. Freedom from England meant freedom from the Church of England.
In order to fully understand what freedoms and limitations exist in America within the "separation of church and state," it is essential that one studies the intentions and beliefs of the principle's creator. The original source of this directive was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson first proposed in 1779. The General Assembly adopted it in 1786. This act was passed by both houses and has since become a part of the Virginia Constitution. The principles and language of this unique document have inspired supporters of religious freedom around the world to adopt similar principles. Read On