I was watching a documentary on Thomas Jefferson recently. It was a basic overview of his life, but useful. Of particular note to me was the reminder of how hard he fought to give Virginia freedom of religion through a separation of church and state. It reminded me of how, when I was growing up in Maryland we were not permitted by law to shop on Sundays. That’s right. There was a state law on the books that would not allow most businesses to open on Sundays. It began as a religious law, but the righties were able to dodge the supreme court by crafting the law in secular language stating it was “to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens” on a secular basis and to promote the secular values of “health, safety, recreation, and general well-being”.
Of course the law was eventually overturned, but not without a fight.
Allow me now to bring Thomas Jefferson into the equation.
Here is an excerpt of Jefferson’s famous letter to Danbury Baptists explaining to them the concept of the separation of church and state and how it is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Oddly, right-wing religious zealots still say things like, “the phrase separation of church and state never appears in the Constitution”- some ignorantly, some knowing damn well that the phrase was created by Jefferson using the principals of the Constitution and later cited by the Supreme Court of the United States beginning in 1878.
Likewise, James Madison used the phrase “separation of church and state”. Madison backed Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” which was written in 1779 and voted in as law of the state in 1786. Here is a brilliant excerpt:
“… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Of course Jefferson also wrote the following:
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782
Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787
I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789 (Richard Price had written to TJ on Oct. 26. about the harm done by religion and wrote “Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?”)
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
-Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.
And this final one is for those people that still believe wrongly that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian- he was not- he was a deist.
The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814
But again, incredibly, a lot of right wing Christian zealots totally distort Jefferson’s words and record on religion. He was not anti-religion, nothing could be further from the truth, except, perhaps, those that state he was a Christian founding father. All evidence aka Jefferson’s own words, point to the fact that he had a deep abiding respect for Jesus Christ as a moral leader, but doubted the resurrection and many other tenets of Christian faith.
Though Thomas Jefferson is a complex man not easily given to concise description, he certainly was not the man current right wingers pain him to be.