Jefferson key in separating church, state

The druid community may wonder why I publish an old article about Jefferson here on the blog.

It is the founding fathers, and most notably, Jefferson that saw the wisdom in ensuring that our country not be bound by religious tyranny and therefore confirming America was never meant to be a ‘Christian State’.

From this legacy, we have the freedom to choose our own spirituality, whether that be druidry, wicca, other paganism or nothing at all.

I had this clipping from the News and Observer in 1995 that was a re-publish of Atlantic Monthly article by Merrill D. Peterson, a highly noteworthy professor and scholar on Jefferson. After doing a quick search to see where this may still be located on the web, I found it absolutely not to be found. Perhaps others will rummage through Google and find it, but I certainly believe it should not be that hard to find, or it has been expunged by editors perhaps.

I’m reprinting it as a reminder to the values of Jefferson and many other followers of the ‘enlightenment’ that architected our wonderful country.


January 15, 1995

The News & Observer

Jefferson key in separating church, state


Page: A17

Thomas Jefferson was a methodical man all his life, and when he came to the end of that life, so crowded with accomplishments, it was perfectly in character for him to compose his own epitaph. He wished most to be remembered, he wrote, for three “testimonials” of his life: author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.

The inclusion of the statute in such a noble trinity has sometimes perplexed Jefferson’s admirers. Of course he would wish to be remembered for the Declaration of Independence, which not only gave birth to the new American nation but provided it with a democratic creed and the world with a philosophy of human rights. And of course he would wish to be remembered for the University of Virginia: It was an enduring monument to his genius, not only in the physical architecture of the grounds and buildings but also in its educational spirit — so much so that it bore witness to the truth of Emerson’s aphorism “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

But why should Jefferson include a mere statute, one of the laws of a single state, among the testimonials of his life? This essay is an answer to that question. And it maintains not only that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom belongs in Jefferson’s incisive epitaph but that it is, in fact, one of the main pillars of American democracy and a beacon of liberty to the world.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is the supreme expression of the 18th-century Enlightenment in Jefferson’s life and work. He was a bookish man. In youth “a hard student,” as he described himself, he was no less so in old age. He compiled three libraries in his lifetime. His great library of about 6,000 volumes became the foundation of the Library of Congress in 1815. And no sooner had he disposed of it than he commenced another, saying, “I cannot live without books.”

Growing up on the outskirts of civilization, the young Jefferson learned from books — how to design a house, measure an eclipse, form a government. He extended his experience beyond the narrow range of Colonial life by means of the new learning of the age and gained a vantage point from which to perceive, through the eye of reason, things as they ought to be. His heroes were neither statesmen nor warriors but philosophers — in particular Bacon, Newton and Locke, upon whom the edifice of the Enlightenment was raised.

The dominant spirit of the Enlightenment was one of skepticism toward all received truths and of untrammeled free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge. “Everything,” Diderot enjoined in the great Encyclopedie, “must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection.”

Man had been too long alienated from nature. For centuries he had been dominated by dogmatic authority and superstition, which was embodied, above all, in the alliance of kings and priests, Church and State. Now those false idols were crumbling, and man might take control of his destiny by discovering the laws of nature and using them in the service of the species.

The optimistic faith of the Enlightenment informed all of Jefferson’s work and public policies: thus the decimal system of coinage with the dollar unit; thus the rectilinear land-survey system for the Transappalachian West, the effects of which are still visible to anyone who flies over the prairies and plains today and views the linear patchwork of the fields below; thus, too, though it was not adopted, Jefferson’s methodically developed plan for a uniform system of weights and measures based on a natural and universal standard. ###A successful suggestion:

But it is “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the only book he managed to write in a crowded lifetime, that offers the best avenue into the enlightened mind of Thomas Jefferson. The book is by itself worthy of an essay. Meant as a contribution to the European Enlightenment, it was also a foreward to the American Enlightenment, for here we find Jefferson, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, embarked upon the intellectual discovery of his native land, the greater Virginia of that day, which extended from Kentucky to the Great Lakes and westward to the Mississippi River. A work inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment became a vehicle of American nationalism — of American self-definition.

First published in Paris in 1785, “Notes on Virginia” appeared in an improved English edition in 1787; many American editions followed. Chapter 17, on religion, is especially interesting in relation to our subject. In it Jefferson gave his own philosophical account of the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia, a struggle he later recalled as “the severest” in which he had ever engaged.

Jefferson’s leadership in that struggle commenced in the fall of 1776, when he returned from Congress, in Philadelphia, and took his seat as the Albemarle County representative in the General Assembly of the newly established Commonwealth of Virginia. Having set forth the fundamental principles of the new nation in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was eager to embody those principles in the laws of Virginia.

He advocated a host of reforms of the old order: a more democratic suffrage and equal representation, an open and individualistic system of landholding shorn of feudal survivals, a more rational and humanitarian code of criminal justice, gradual emancipation of the slaves, a comprehensive system of public education, and, of course, disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the institution of a new order of religious life founded on the twin principles of absolute religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Several of the reforms were never enacted. Old Virginia rejected Jefferson’s liberal vision of a new Virginia. After a decade-long campaign, however, his effort in behalf of religious freedom was crowned with success.

Limits of toleration:

The Church of England had been established in the infancy of the colony. There was nothing unusual about this. Everywhere in the world church and state were united, and dissenters from the established religion, although they might be tolerated, suffered numerous pains and penalties.

Virginia had been one of six American colonies with an Anglican establishment. That establishment had never been strong, however, and as the number of dissenters increased during the 18th century, the Church steadily lost vigor, influence and followers. In Virginia, as Jefferson remarked, perhaps as many as two-thirds of the citizens were dissenters from the established church. The Revolution rendered this conflict intolerable.

Jefferson had been disappointed that the Virginia constitution of 1776 left the establishment in place. Fortunately, the celebrated Declaration of Rights, adjoined to that constitution, asserted the true principle: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

As originally drafted by George Mason, the article guaranteed only “the fullest Toleration in the exercise of religion.” But at the behest of James Madison, the young delegate from Orange County, the language of toleration was dropped in favor of the language of natural right: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” The change amounted to only a few words, yet it was momentous.

The English Act of Toleration, it was commonly thought, had extended to Virginia. Under it, dissenting Protestants — not Roman Catholics or Jews — were allowed to hold religious services, provided that their ministers and places of worship were registered with the government. The idea of toleration assumed an official religion along with the right of the state to grant favor to dissenters or withhold it. Toleration, therefore, fell well short of equality.

On the principle of toleration, nothing needed to be changed in Virginia law and practice in 1776. Toleration was the status quo. But if the principle of individual freedom and right became the basis of legislation, there must be a sweeping change in the civil and religious life of the commonwealth.

And so it happened. When the first General Assembly met, in October of 1776, it was flooded with petitions for the

disestablishment of the church and the removal of disabilities from dissenters.

In this campaign, the battalions were provided by the dissenting sects: Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. Their motives were clearly religious; they sought, as had Roger Williams and William Penn before them, the liberty of their own faith. But they were marshaled and led by liberals and rationalists like Jefferson and Madison, who, while friendly to religion, were not sectarians, and aimed to secure the republic and its citizens from the “spiritual tyranny” of any and every religion . the seekers of salvation and the seekers of freedom and enlightenment were allies in the Virginia struggle.

Taking the next step:

Jefferson outlined his whole philosophy of the subject in a speech delivered to the House of Delegates in November. (There is no record of the speech; what follows is based on Jefferson’s notes.) He began with a history lesson on the evils of religious establishments. Much of this concerned the Old World. But even in Virginia, he noted, the laws punished heresy by death, and denial of the Trinity by three years’ imprisonment; the law of blasphemy punished religious belief as well as speech; freethinkers might have their children taken from them under Virginia law; church attendance was compulsory; and so on.

To be sure, the laws were for the most part dead letters. But that did not remove the stigma of the laws, and it offered no security against returning oppression and injustice. The continuing persecution of Baptist ministers, in particular, was notorious. These “disturbers of the peace” had been hounded, silenced and imprisoned. All dissenters were taxed to support the Anglican Church. This, too, was persecution. What kind of attachment might these people feel toward a government that discriminated against them on behalf of a church and a clergy associated with the British enemy? Political realism as well as human right demanded disestablishment.

Jefferson then posed the fundamental question: “Has the state a right to adopt an opinion in matters of religion?” Answering with a resounding negative, he pursued the argument well beyond the original question of a single state church. According to the Lockean, or contractual, theory of civil government, men enter into government to secure those rights they cannot secure themselves. But religious conscience, being wholly inward and private, is not one of these. It does not depend upon civil authority. Men and women are answerable for their beliefs solely to God.

The state’s intervention in religious matters, Jefferson went on, was harmful to religion itself. Assailing the folly of

state-supported and -mandated religions, Jefferson sounded like a Virginia Voltaire: “Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.”

The progress of truth in religion, as in science, depended upon the progress of free inquiry and private judgment over the coercion and error of authority, both civil and ecclesiastical. “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” Jefferson declared. “Truth can stand by itself.” Religious differences — the multiplicity of sects and creeds in America — are beneficial to society. “The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other.” Religious differences are equally beneficial to religion, for they set up a virtuous competition among the sects and require them to stand on their own mettle rather than depending on external support.

Key votes in Virginia:

In the years to come, Jefferson often reaffirmed his belief in the salubrity of America’s religious pluralism. Writing to a rabbi who had sent him a discourse on the consecration of the synagogue in Savannah in 1821, he spoke of the two great principles proved by the American experience. First, he said, man can be trusted with the government of himself; and second, freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension and conflict, “the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is ‘divided we stand, united we fall.'”

The first contest, in 1776, ended in several small victories. The General Assembly repealed some of the most oppressive English statutes and exempted dissenters from taxes to support the Anglican Church. But the church was not disestablished, and parish levies on its members to support it were not abolished, only suspended.

At the same time, the assembly reserved decision on a new issue, a new proposal, offered as a kind of via media between the old establishment and the radical reform wanted by Jefferson. This called for a general tax on all citizens for the support of all Christian ministers. Everyone would have the assurance that his shilling went into the pocket of his minister, be he Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian or even Catholic.

Churchmen, foreseeing the doom of the old order, hoped to salvage something by creating the broad foundation of a plural establishment. Always before in history the establishment of religion had meant official sanction and support of a single state church. But now, in the course of religious controversy in Virginia, the concept took on new meaning: the civil support of Christianity without preference as to sect.

It was in part to close off this development that Jefferson drafted his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, in 1777. Two years later, after repeal of the levies on Anglicans, Jefferson introduced his bill in the assembly. Two plans were now before it. One, Jefferson’s, was a root-and-branch rejection of any civil authority in matters of religion and an affirmation of complete freedom of belief and worship. The other, the “general assessment” plan, which authorized taxation in support of the Christian religion regardless of sect, did so on traditional grounds — for instance, the recognized power of the state to diffuse knowledge, restrain vice, and further the peace and good order of society.

Neither plan could command a majority of the General Assembly in 1779 or for several years to come.

The conclusion of the controversy awaited the end of the Revolutionary War. In 1784, Congress sent Jefferson on a mission to France, and James Madison, his young friend, assumed the leadership of the reform party in the House of Delegates. Petitions again poured into the assembly.

‘An unhallowed perversion’:

In the spring of 1785, Madison wrote his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” Handwritten and printed copies, without attribution of authorship, circulated throughout central Virginia. They were commonly attached to sheets of paper asking for signatures. The “Memorial” is a brilliant exposition of the philosophy crystallized in Jefferson’s statute: It proceeds from the same Enlightenment directives of reason and right, and reaches the same conclusions. Madison maintained that tax support subverted rather than sustained true religion — indeed, that it was “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” And Madison warned those who made light of the assessment plan, thinking it a harmless halfway point between the liberal skeptics and the sectarian religionists, of the dangers of compromising such a fundamental principle as religious freedom.

The argument was persuasive. When the General Assembly met in the fall, it received more than a hundred petitions on religion. Only 11 supported the general-assessment plan; many others, with some 11,000 signatures, were copies of the “Memorial and Remonstrance.”

Support for a plural establishment had virtually disappeared, and Madison seized the occasion to reintroduce Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. It passed with but one minor change. A senate amendment would have gutted the bill by striking the preamble, but the house stood firm, and the bill became law on Jan. 16, 1786.

Jefferson was U.S. Minister to France when the statute was enacted. He promptly saw to its publication.

Jefferson under scrutiny:

The statute laid the foundation for the unique American tradition of church-state relations. A few words should be said about some of the most common misconceptions about Jefferson and the statute. To address perhaps the most common fallacy: It is often maintained that nothing in the statute was meant to exclude governmental intrusion in matters of religion as long as the intrusion is on a neutral or nonpreferential basis. But that approach is precisely what was rejected in Virginia. And in the statute, after saying it is “sinful and tyrannical” to compel a person to support opinions he does not share, Jefferson went on to declare that even “forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion” is wrong.

Present-day neoconservatives and spokesmen for the religious right argue that a common religion is the necessary glue of the nation, that we began as a Christian people, and that however pluralist we may have become, the survival of the republic rests upon the foundation of Christian or perhaps Judeo-Christian belief. Again, the whole thrust of Jefferson’s philosophy was to reject that position, to reject any idea that a shared community of religious beliefs or of moral values, other than the value of freedom itself, was necessary to society. He sought to raise the republic on the inalienable rights of man, allowing every citizen sovereignty over his own mind and conscience.

Jefferson has never been without critics with regard to his own religion as well as his politics. There are some (more in the past than today) who look upon him as an atheist or infidel, and therefore an aberration in the American scheme of things; they charge that he had a hidden agenda hostile to Christianity. And so it is said that the statute, instead of aiming at freedom of religion, actually sought to impose upon the people a new, infidel religion of the Enlightenment, a kind of secul ar humanism destructive of traditional moral and religious values.

The University of Virginia, later founded on a purely secular basis, was widely denounced by clerics as a deistic enterprise of enormous proportions. Jefferson’s own religion was a version of deism, but he was not therefore hostile to ordinary religious belief and profession. As a modern philosopher, Herbert Schneider, has said, “The power and eloquence of Jefferson’s writing on religious freedom is due largely to his evident religious devotion.”

Unlike the anticlericalism of the Old World, Jefferson’s hatred of priesthoods and establishments did not involve him in hatred of religion. He wished for himself, and for his countrymen, not freedom from religion but freedom to pursue religious truth wherever reason and conscience led, and the more earnest and upright the pursuit, the more respect it won from him.

Building the ‘wall’:

The Statute for Religious Freedom became a model for other American states old and new; moreover, its principles entered into the U.S. Constitution by way of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, for which we are largely indebted to Jefferson’s great collaborator, James Madison: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

As president of the United States, Jefferson in 1802 put a gloss on the clause which was destined to have far-reaching influence. Writing to a committee of Baptists in Connecticut, he said, “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, 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 and State.”

At that time, and until 1940, the First Amendment, along with all the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, was held to be a restraint only on the national government. And so it rarely came into play, since most matters touching religion, or speech and press, belonged to the sphere of the state governments.

But beginning in 1940, the Supreme Court made the guarantees of the First Amendment, and ultimately of the Bill of Rights as a whole, applicable to the states. The justices on the bench and the advocates at the bar were much influenced in their understanding of the “free exercise” clause by their understanding of the Virginia statute and the circumstances that had produced it. As one of them, Justice Wiley Rutledge, said, “The great instruments of the Virginia struggle … became the warp and woof of our constitutional tradition.”

The justices also picked up Jefferson’s metaphor of “a wall of separation.” Plain and simple though it might seem, the metaphor was not easily applied to the many cases that now came before the Supreme Court. Justice Robert H. Jackson once remarked that the “wall of separation” described by the court was beginning to look like one of Jefferson’s serpentine garden walls at the University of Virginia. ###Principles etched in stone:

Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled in the United States at that time, was astounded by the coexistence of what he called “the spirit of liberty” and “the spirit of religion” in this country. In Europe, where joined, they were antagonists; in America both flourished although they were completely separate.

Thus the universal opinion at the time of the American Revolution — that, in Jefferson’s words, “civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the Christian religion would perish if not supported” — had been repudiated and replaced by a great new truth.

Appropriately, words from the Virginia statute are among those that grace the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, and its great dome is encircled by his personal oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Nowhere in the world today is there more genuine freedom of conscience, and more respect for the separateness of church and state, than in the United States. It is a precious legacy.

Nevertheless there are powerful voices in the land that would rewrite history and undermine these revolutionary principles. More-subtle dangers lurk in adjudications by the courts. One particular Supreme Court ruling in 1990, the so-called Peyote Case, which upheld civil sanctions against the use of peyote in the worship rituals of Native Americans, led Congress three years later to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, mandating a return to high standards of state nonintervention.

President Clinton, on signing the act into law, remarked on the “majestic quality” of this reaffirmation of a two-centuries-old faith in the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to this long tradition was fundamental, as he must have believed it would be when he inscribed “Author … of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” in his epitaph.

Merrill D. Peterson was the Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia for 25 years. This article originally appeared in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

b March 31, 1921 – d September 23, 2009

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