Misreading Jefferson on Church and State
Unless you’ve been living in a cave lately, you might have noticed there seems to be an ongoing onslaught against our Judeo-Christian traditions and beliefs. It’s happening on virtually every front in our culture—in schools, in the media and movies, in the public arena.
Many elitists today interpret the First Amendment in such a way as to turn it into a “search and destroy mission for any sneaky vestiges of religion left in the public square,” as one Christian law professor put it. That’s what separation of church and state means nowadays.
Virtually all of this is done, consciously or unconsciously, in the name of Thomas Jefferson. After all, it was he who gave us the phrase “separation of church and state.” But what he meant by the phrase and what the ACLU and their allies mean are two different things.
First of all, Jefferson wasn’t even in the country when the founders wrote the Constitution. He was in France, serving as our ambassador. Nor was Jefferson directly involved in the crafting of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
In 1947, the Supreme Court took an obscure letter of Jefferson’s, written to the Baptists of Danbury, CT, in which he quoted the First Amendment and said that it built “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Prior to that 1947 decision, there were few cases regarding the establishment clause. After it, it was as if the floodgates were opened up—eventually washing away things like school prayer and Bible-reading (which had gone on for centuries, beginning in the colonies), and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public. And now it never stops.
Todd Starnes of Fox News documents the current war against all things Christian in the public arena is his new book, God Less America.
I interviewed Todd recently on our television program and mentioned how the idea of “God less America” is an oxymoron, since our national birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence (written by Jefferson, of course), says that our rights are come from the Creator.
Todd responded, “… the atheist and the secularist, they really truly want God to be removed from the public marketplace of ideas…” And what happens if they are successful?
Todd says, consider “the nations throughout history, where man has been in charge [and removed those God-given rights]…those become dictatorships, those become [tyrannies]…”
The irony of this anti-God crusade is that it is done in the name of Jefferson. Why is that ironic? Everybody knows he was an atheist or closet unbeliever, right? Well, not so fast.
I just co-wrote a book on Jefferson and his faith with Dr. Mark Beliles, who lives in and pastors a church in Charlottesville, not far from Monticello. Dr. Beliles has been researching our third president for years and has uncovered some important things that are not well known.
Together we have produced the book, Doubting Thomas? The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson. The book deals with five distinct religious phases in Jefferson’s life.
In his most believing phase, Thomas Jefferson helped start a church in 1777 (the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville) with the Rev. Charles Clay, an evangelical, as the minister. Jefferson even wrote the church’s founding document with the stated desire for “Gospel knowledge.” He also donated more money than any other layman for that church. This was a year after he wrote the Declaration and the same year as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
The book contains two sermons of Rev. Clay—never before in print. They are evangelical (and evangelistic), and Jefferson helped support this man’s ministry.
Later, Thomas Jefferson privately shared with people growing doubts (and then unbelief) about the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the trustworthiness of the entire Bible. But to take the Thomas Jefferson of 1813 (who denied the Trinity) and impose that on his writings of 1776 and 1777 (when he helped create a local orthodox church) is anachronistic—and bad history. But that’s what is done today.
Thus, Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. Secondly, he did not believe in the separation of God and state. Even the above-mentioned letter from which we get the phrase “separation of church and state” ends with President Jefferson appealing to the Baptists to pray for him and promising he’ll pray for them—to God. If the ACLU and their minions were correct, the very source of “the separation of church and state” violates “the separation of church and state!”
It boils down to interpretation. Jefferson and the other founders did not want a national denomination. That is clear. But that doesn’t mean they did not want godly influence to hold some sway in government. Far from it. They cherished the influence of “religion and morality.”
When Jefferson was president, he attended Christian worship services regularly on Sunday mornings. Where? In the U.S. Capitol building. But “What about the separation of church and state?,” someone might ask. Again, Jefferson didn’t believe in the separation of God and state.
One view he never abandoned was the importance of our rights as God-given. Etched in stone at his Memorial are these words: “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” The answer is No. In short, the Thomas Jefferson of the ACLU is an historical fiction. Doubting Thomas seeks to set the record straight.
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