Politics In The Pulpit

What Would Jefferson Do?

Pulpit-based politicking is nothing new in the United States and neither is controversy over it.

Thomas Jefferson commented on the phenomenon 189 years ago. Not surprisingly, Jefferson, always a strong advocate of church-state separation, didn’t think much of pastors who delivered politically charged sermons. In fact, he believed they were guilty of breach of contract.

Jefferson had been asked to comment on a series of sermons published by a pastor named Alexander McLeod about the recently concluded War of 1812. Jefferson agreed with McLeod’s support for the war but took issue with the religious leader’s decision to base so many sermons on it.

In a letter dated March 13, 1815, to Peter H. Wendover, a member of the House of Representatives, Jefferson observed, “On one question only I differ from him, and it is that which constitutes the subject of his first discourse, the right of discussing public affairs in the pulpit.”

Jefferson went on to argue that the scope of human knowledge is so vast that scholars often confine themselves to specific areas of study. Preachers, he opined, should likewise stick to what they know best: religion.

“Collections of men associate together, under the name of congregations, and employ a religious teacher of the particular sect of opinions of which they happen to be, and contribute to make up a stipend as a compensation for the trouble of delivering them, at such periods as they agree on, lessons in the religion they profess,” wrote Jefferson. “If they want instruction in other sciences or arts, they apply to other instructors; and this is generally the business of early life.”

Jefferson continued, “But I suppose there is not an instance of a single congregation which has employed their preacher for the mixed purposes of lecturing them from the pulpit in chemistry, in medicine, in law, in the science and principles of government, or in anything but religion exclusively. Whenever, therefore, preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put them off with a discourse on the Coper\xadnican system, on chemical affini\xadties, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art or science. In choosing our pastor we look to his religious qualifications, without inquiring into his physical or political dogmas, with which we mean to have nothing to do.”

Later in the letter, Jefferson defended the right of pastors to speak out on political issues in their personal writings. He just didn’t like to hear it emanating from the pulpit.

Jefferson feared that his views on this issue might rub some people the wrong way if the letter became public. In the letter, he refers to three New England Federalist clergy by name, writing, “I do not wish to be cast forth” to them.

After drafting the letter, Jefferson decided not to send it. At the bottom he wrote, “On further consideration, this letter was not sent” and observed that he took that course because Wendover’s character was “entirely unknown” to him. In its place, Jefferson sent Wendover a much more restrained one-paragraph note thanking him for sending the McLeod sermons.

Jefferson’s dislike for politics in the pulpit probably arose from personal experience. During the 1800 presidential election, several clergymen in New England viciously attacked him during church services, branding Jefferson an infidel and an atheist who would, if elected, order all Bibles gathered up and burned.

Such baseless charges were highly ironic, given Jefferson’s lifelong advocacy of religious freedom for all. Jefferson was a strong proponent of the view that the fruits of religious freedom were for all to enjoy not just certain types of Christians. He once wrote of the importance of extending his Virginia religious freedom bill to “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”)

If Jefferson were alive today, it’s clear he would be no fan of Religious Right-style pulpit politicking.