Jefferson's View: Democracy, Not Theocracy – And Religious Freedom For All

April 13 is Thomas Jefferson's birthday. Americans United encourages people to mark the occasion by standing up for Jefferson's views on religious liberty.
This is important because
Religious Right groups often
argue that the Sage of Monticello
agreed with them on the relationship between religion and government.

Anyone who is familiar with Jefferson's
writings knows why such claims are absurd. If he were alive today, he would rebuke the Religious Right, not join them.

Consider Jefferson's enlightened views on the scope of religious liberty. He sought not toleration, where some faiths were favored and other merely tolerated, but rather full-fledged religious freedom for everyone. He reveled in the U.S. Constitution's separation of religion and government.

Jefferson's "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," a predecessor of the First Amendment, read in part, "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

The proposed bill came up for deliberation in the Virginia legislature during a time when Jefferson was living in Paris, where he was serving as U.S. ambassador to France. During the debate, some lawmakers tried to add references to Christianity to the measure. Jefferson's ally, James Madison, helped block the move.

When informed about this, Jefferson rejoiced. Years later he wrote, "[T]he insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."

Is this the Religious Right's view? Can anyone imagine Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell or Tony Perkins publicly standing up for the right to be an infidel?

In another famous quote, Jefferson pithily explained why a person's beliefs about God are none of the government's business.

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others," he wrote in Notes on Virginia. "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. In neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Jefferson also knew a few things about theocrats – he grappled with them in his own day. Even as late as 1800, some misguided religious leaders in New England still harbored hopes that their religions could be officially established by government.

Jefferson would have none of it. He favored a democracy that maximized religious liberty, not a theocracy that trampled it.

In a remarkable letter to Benjamin Rush dated Sept. 23, 1800, Jefferson blasted the theocratic clergy who opposed his bid for the presidency. He noted that these religious leaders had "a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro' the U.S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists."

But then Jefferson exploded those hopes, writing, "The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

The latter half of that phrase is etched on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. But few Americans who visit the monument and read the passage are aware Jefferson said it as a broadside against the theocrats of his day!

This is just a sample of what Jefferson had to say on this subject. More quotes from Jefferson are available on the AU Web site.

The point is, anyone who believes that Jefferson did not support complete religious and philosophical liberty, anyone who asserts that Jefferson did not advocate open and free inquiry in religious matters and vigorous debate over theological questions, anyone who tells you that Jefferson favored some type of "Christian nation" is, quite simply, full of it.