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  • Church and State: Clearing Thomas Jefferson’s Good Name

    Today, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we remember the man who can list as his crowning achievement the Declaration of Independence. But with the Obamacare contraceptive mandate still fresh in our memories, perhaps it would be good to remember another aspect of Jefferson’s legacy: his staunch commitment to religious liberty.

    Jefferson firmly believed in the importance of keeping government out of religion, and nowhere is this more evident than in his drafting of the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. This act boldly proclaims “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” The purpose of this law was to disestablish the Anglican Church as the official state religion and to ensure freedom of religion for all Virginians. This theme of allowing a person to worship any higher power they choose is connected to the Declaration’s right to pursue happiness.

    Later, upon becoming our third President, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut in response to their complaints about the state legislature infringing on their religious liberties. Describing how he thought the federal government should act toward the states on matters of religion, he famously wrote that, although he sympathized with them, he could not act because “a wall of separation between Church and State” exists.

    This statement by Jefferson has been at the center of controversy ever since Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black offered up the novel interpretation in 1947 that any government support for religion is unconstitutional. Jefferson’s words were twisted to imply a radical separation of religion and politics.

    To shed some light on this issue, we can look to Jefferson’s own actions during his two terms as President. While in office, he personally approved federally funded programs that built churches and supported Christian missionaries who worked with the Indians. This does not sound like someone who wanted an impenetrable wall between “Church and State.”

    Jefferson had strong opinions concerning the government’s role in the people’s practice of their religion, and this is apparent through his zealous advocacy of religious liberty with the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. So on his birthday, let’s set the record straight by remembering the man who believed in keeping politics out of religion, not the other way around.

    Christopher Stevens is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/internships-young-leaders/the-heritage-foundation-internship-program.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    26 Responses to Church and State: Clearing Thomas Jefferson’s Good Name

    1. Polyphemos says:

      There is also some fairly sound evidence that the actually darkened the doors of his local Episcopal parish church, from time to time.

    2. Theophile says:

      Hi Christopher,
      What puzzles me is how Tom's words are heralded in the "freedom from religion(Atheist)" crowd. Doesn't the declaration Tom wrote make clear that "our rights", and our country's right to exist, all come from, the Creator God? Doesn't that match the God described in the Bible? Can You read his and other founders writings, and not hear the words of Foxes book of Martyrs, our Christian history, quoted?

      • Bobbie says:

        Your comment is confusing so I might trail off…

        the Creator God isn't a religion! anyone that sensitive to show offense to the American declaration of independence or any documentation of the founders can achieve much intelligence and dignity by not distorting it at a convenience that instigates overly sensitivities but rise above like everyone else who isn't physically harmed by words. The bible isn't a religion- either. If people weren't looking to be offended making everything a federal case the federal government can do it's job by not pampering them less the cost of others who do respect to understand the true interpretation not looking for pathetic anything to be offended! Why do people imply religion where no religion is mentioned? That's the poorly and wrongfully educated who are weak on the subject, idling America(ns)'s productivity.

    3. Patrick Lee says:

      Mr. Jefferson's blog contains a number of excerpts from his writings about religion. Read the blog at http://ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com/blog/

    4. John says:

      Thomas Jefferson also spoke of the "wall of separation", which doesn't that imply no religion in politics?

      • @Frances_D says:

        I think that you would have to look at that phrase in context with the First Amendment of the Constitution. "Congress shall make no law…" That would imply that the Government is not allowed to interfere in religion, but that religion is free to speak it's mind in politics…the precise opposite of what Progressives have been trying to convince the American people. The Bible says, "Woe to those who call good bad, and bad good." If this is true, there's going to be a lot of WOE goin' 'round.

      • Jay says:

        It Implied that Government would not infringe on religious activity. Both private and piblic.

      • Jim says:

        Thomas Jefferson's own habits and practice demonstrates that he was not implying "no religion in politics". That was the main point of the article. Unfortunately, you seem to have missed the point.

      • TXPatriot says:

        It doesn't imply any such thing, especially if you know anything at all about his core beliefs. As the author stated, it was to keep politics out if religion, not the other way around.

      • sandykramer says:

        Try READING this article when you're sober. A text without a context is nothing more than a pretext.

        • Peter says:

          Hi sandykramer,
          I think there is no need to offend anybody….
          I don't have any evidence, but regardless of the lack of context as you point out, I think that Mr. Stevens was not drunk when he wrote this article, and it would be unfair to think otherwise.
          I also want to point out that your second sentence was extraordinary… I really liked it!

      • Stephen says:

        Read the article again John. Jefferson advocated that politics should not interfere in religion, however, he never said that the reverse is true. In fact he advocated for the Judea/Christian philosophies as the basis for the Constitution and our legal system. He was an ardent supporter of "politics from the pulpit".

    5. Art A Layman says:

      Nice thing about deciphering dead people's meanings is they can't disagree.

    6. @trevzb says:

      You haven't made a case that religion needs the assistance of the government, however. Yours must be a very small god, indeed, if it requires the state to do its bidding.

      • Fortunately, nobody was trying to make a case that religion needs the assistance of the government. I hope you don't think she's being unhelpful for not helping you with your strawman argument.

    7. jim miller says:

      Jefferson firmly believed in keeping religion out of government. You were close but no cigar.

    8. Phil185 says:

      John, No, what our founding fathers believed, what Jefferson believed is that the Church will not tell the State how to run the country and the State will not tell the Church how to preach from the pulpit. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, all deeply believed in and feared God, the Bible and Religion. There were also several Diest among our Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine for instance. Paine also believed in and feared God, contrary to Athiest/Socialist distrotions, Diest believe in and fear God. NONE of these men believed in a seperation and or disconnect from God/religion. They were well read/educated men. They knew first hand the dangers of the Church running the state. Just look at what has happened in Europe over the years and especially now within the Middle East where Islam is running the States. It doesn't work, never has, never will.

    9. nunya says:

      actually, the "wall of separation" TJ was writing about was to keep gov't out of religion, NOT religion out of gov't…
      at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, several States still had official religions, the US Constitution is a set of rules to set up a FEDERAL Gov't,… that shows just how far we have gone astray from the vision of our Founding Fathers…

    10. David McElroy says:

      President Jefferson ordered major federal buildings be open to host church services, with various churches rotating with no denominational preferences. The US Capitol and US Treasury buildings were among those hosting Christian services Jefferson attended himself. Some claim Jefferson rejected Christianity because he found no virtue in "Orthodox Christianity", but he was speaking of the rigid religious instutions the pilgrims had fled Europe to escape, not Christ himself. Jefferson declared allegiance to Christ as his Lord. The "cut & paste" private edition of excised Bible verses Jefferson is castigated for is a collection of the "red letter" scriptures recording Jesus Christ's words. Jefferson was intent on what Jesus personally said, not what others said of him. Jefferson wrote of fearing a just God who would someday call us all into account some day, judging great and small, kings and paupers. He was not a deist, as some claim, as a deist believes God never intervenes in the affairs of men. Jefferson was a Christian man of the classical libertarian bent, supporting autonomous local congregations worshipping free of state coercion.

      • Jefferson got the bad rap as a deist in the quite vicious conflict between himself and Alexander Hamilton. There were quite a few false and malicious anonymous attacks going around that today as misread as fact.

    11. Deanne Evans says:

      Bottom line: There is nothing in the constitution that states that there is a "separation between church and state," as is so often misquoted.

    12. Larry Wright says:

      How different it would be had Jefferson said “a wall of separation between State and Church”. The Founders wanted to prevent the State from interfering in the free expression of religion. They *never* envisioned the State dictating the destruction of religious influence *OF the State*. Every law banning the free expression of belief in God or other religious doctrine is patently unconstitutional. The State has never had any authority to even have a voice on religious expression, regardless whether it is on government property or not. All such acts are a complete violation of the 1st Amendment.

    13. Blair Franconia, NH says:

      I bet any atheist a dollar who can point to the phrase "separation of church and state" ANYWHERE in the First
      Amendment.

      • EarsToHear.net says:

        Kudos Blair: This phrase does not appear in ANY founding document. It is not in the Constitution of the United States. It is in the 'Constitution' of the former Soviet Union (Article 124 of the USSR Constitution – 1922-1991).

    14. EarsToHear.net says:

      See how Thomas Jefferson himself apparently "violated" the "separation of church and state." http://www.earstohear.net/Separation/thebiglie.ht

    15. Dorinda Sears says:

      Those who are demanding that we take God and any reference to Him out of every nook and cranny everywhere want us all to believe secularism is essential,if religion is not to be imposed on everyone. What we need to understand is the difference between secularity and secularism. The two are not interchangeable.

      Secularity is a matter of fact condition. It is not mindful of and does not concern itself with religion one way or the other. It seeks no converts, pushes no agenda and is offended by no one's beliefs or practices. This is what our founding fathers aimed for.

      Secularism, on the other hand, is a philosophy. Unfortunately, it is akin to atheism, which is fundamentally rabid in its opposition to other faiths, particularly those in the Judeo-Christian traditions.

      In other words, we must understand that secularists are fundamentally bullies. They aim to have us all act as atheists and subscribe to their practices no matter what our beliefs. We must understand this if we are to preserve our own religious freedoms.

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