Jefferson – A Religious Enigma

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Thomas Jefferson, 3rd U.S. president

What role did the Scottish Enlightenment play in Jefferson’s views on religious freedom, and would he have seen the United States as a Christian Nation?

Thomas Jefferson and Religion

According to David Denby in his article, Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth – century Edinburgh, published in the New Yorker, “The Scots were conservatives and radicals at the same time. They prized social order, and peace and quiet; they also sought intellectual revolution—new ways of looking at how the mind works, how morality works, and how we live in society. The religious strife of the seventeenth century, including the judicial murder of a reckless student, disgusted them. They could not imagine, and did not desire, civil society without religion. But they wanted to ease God out of scientific research and out of political and social life, too. And they wanted to naturalize morality—to locate the foundations of morals somewhere else than in revelation and fear of eternal damnation.”

This would seem to be consistent with everything we know about Jefferson’s view on religious matters. It wasn’t that Jefferson wanted to eliminate religion from society, but rather to “excommunicate” it , so to speak, from the workings of government, and the pursuit of knowledge through science. In his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in which the phrase, “separation of church and state” was used as a metaphor to describe what the result of the application of the first amendments religious clause would provide, what is overlooked in that letter is his position that, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, in Volume I of The Rise of American Civilization, chose to avoid the term “Christian” as the word to use when describing the religious beliefs of the leading Founding Fathers of this country.This is how they put it: “When the crisis came, Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned among either the Unitarians or the Deists. It was not Cotton Mather’s God to whom the authors of the Declaration of Independence appealed,’ it was to Nature’s God.’ From whatever source derived, the effect of both Unitarianism and Deism was to hasten the retirement of historic theology from its empire over the intellect of American leaders and to clear the atmosphere for secular interests.”

Robert Norlander writes in the January-February 1985 issue of The American Rationalist: The Alternative to Superstition, “a ‘Christian nation’, is quite a nebulous expression and means absolutely nothing until it is defined precisely.” He adds that “The Christianity of most of the Founding Fathers simply would not be recognized as Christianity by most of the people in America professing variants of that faith today, and argues that if the Founding Fathers had wanted this country to be a Unitarian nation, the claim would have been on more solid ground as this undoubtedly would have represented the majority position as Unitarianism today represents what could be called today the only species of rational Christianity that can be said to exist.”

The Jefferson Bible, might be a clear example of our third presidents take on the morality and philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, rather then the divinity of the teacher. He deliberately edited out all references to miracles. Absent the miracles, the only thing remaining is whether the words themselves have meaning and stand on their own merit. They have for over 2000 years.

References:

  1. The New Yorker: Northern Lights. How modern life emerged from eighteenth – century Edinburgh. The Scottish Enlightenment by David Denby
  2. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. Library of America
  3. A Critical Response to Bernard Katz On Our Founding Fathers by Robert Nordlander
  4. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, in 20 volumes.University of Virginia
  5. The Rise of American Civilization:Volume I, Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard