Elections and Evangelicals: Thomas Jefferson’s Twilight Reminder About Religious Equality

Elections and Evangelicals: Thomas Jefferson’s Twilight Reminder About Religious Equality

It was this founding right to believe as we will, to believe differently than the rich and the powerful, that was the main original contribution of the framers of the Constitution and is a central part of our story as a nation.

When he was in the twilight of his life, Thomas Jefferson authored a short autobiography. Written when he was 77 years old, he sought, among other things, to cast in sharp relief the meaning of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom – one of three things for which he wished to be most remembered. (The other two were the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.) It is worth taking note of Jefferson’s final thought on this in light of our current political climate, in which leaders of the Christian Right and politicians seeking their support insist that America was founded as a Christian nation; that this legacy has been taken from us; must somehow be restored; and that American Muslims are somehow an affront to this divine mandate and the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

Jefferson’s twilight clarification provides an authoritative rebuttal, which came at the end of the contentious era that gave us the definitions of religious freedom that we use today, even as the arguments against them remain largely unchanged. During this presidential campaign season, which seems likely to be marked by inflammatory rhetoric about religious identity and religious matters, it may be helpful to take a deep breath or two, and take in some historical perspective.

The Virginia Statute was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written. It provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

But in his autobiography, Jefferson warily wanted to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of history, lest anyone think there could be any exceptions. The statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.” This is significant not only in its obvious contemporary relevance, but because the Virginia Statute, as we shall see, provided the precedent and the philosophical underpinning for the approach to matters of religion and government taken by the framers of the Constitution, and later, the First Amendment.

Jefferson’s further explanation of the legislative history of the bill takes on added significance in light of the claims of Christian nationalists of the founding era and in our own time. He reported that the Virginia Legislature specifically rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.” This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.” The final language left open the question of exactly who was the author of our religion.

Similar scenarios played out during the founding era, as they have throughout our history, as advocates for the right of individual conscience and the principle of religious equality for all citizens struggled with the temporal and cosmic ambitions of various Christian sects.


There is more to the story of the Virginia Statute, but let’s first briefly consider religion in Jefferson’s career as a politician. Although the cause of religious liberty was mostly won across his lifetime, it was a hard-fought struggle and he was a target of personal attacks that sound familiar more than two centuries later. As Jefferson rose in national life, especially in his runs for president, his political opponents, notably Calvinist clergy aligned with the Federalist Party, attacked his religious character. He was called an “anti-Christ,” an “atheist” and a “French infidel,” because of his association with the philosophers of the Enlightenment during his tenure as ambassador to France. “Numerous sermons were preached,” writes Jefferson scholar Charles Sanford, “warning that if Jefferson was elected, he would discredit religion, overthrow the church and destroy the Bible.” When news came that Jefferson had been elected president in 1800, people in New England actually hid their Bibles – certain that agents of Jefferson would be coming to seize them. The anti-Jefferson preachers had “warned that electing a ‘deist or an infidel’ to the presidency would be ‘no less than a rebellion against God,’ and would end in the destruction of the churches and a reign of infamy.”

Although he was careful not to publicly discuss his personal religious views, his role in advancing religious equality and working against the established churches of the time was well known. Jefferson did not respond to attacks on his religious character from the partisan press and pulpits. But he did discuss the matter in private correspondence with his friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush. One of his statements in a letter is considered so representative of his thought and the struggles and meaning of his life that it is engraved around the inside of the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Such stories of the politics of the founding era and our most influential leaders remind us about who we are, or at least who we aspire to be as a people. They also remind us that while much has changed, the nature of the struggle remains the same, and that the story of the right of individual conscience, religious freedom and separation of church and state neither began nor ended with the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791.

Let’s return now to the story of the Virginia Statute. Jefferson wrote the bill in 1777 and introduced it in the state Legislature after he was elected governor of Virginia in 1779. But it was not until December of 1785, when he was in France, that his ally and then governor, James Madison, was able to get the bill through the Legislature. The day the the bill was enacted, January 16, 1786 is now traditionally celebrated and recognized via an annual presidential proclamation, as Religious Freedom Day.

Passage followed a vigorous statewide debate about a tax proposed by Patrick Henry to support Christian ministers of several denominations (not just the Anglicans, as had been the case before the Revolution). The Legislature made a historic and pivotal choice in rejecting the Henry bill and passing Jefferson’s. One of the key effects was to establish, for the first time, the separation philosophy that has come to define how we approach these often contentious matters in a religiously plural society. The bill eliminated official and financial support for the Anglican Church, effecting disestablishment. Neither church nor state would control one another.

The next year, Madison, fresh from the religion debates in Virginia, served as the principal author of the new federal Constitution. There was no mention of God or Christianity in the text. The only reference to religion was in Article 6, which passed the Constitutional Convention with little debate: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The Constitution was ultimately ratified by the states and went into effect in 1789. But there was considerable debate over ratification, much of it centered on the lack of any mention of God or Christianity, and the lack of any kind of church establishment; for others, the problem was a troubling lack of a Bill of Rights. The absence of a religious test was, for example, an issue in North Carolina, where according to historian Frank Lambert: “Rev. Henry Abbott, a Baptist minister from Camden, was disturbed by the absence of a religious test. ‘As there are no religious tests,’ he reasoned, ‘pagans, deists and Mahometans might obtain office, and senators and representatives might all be pagans.’ ” Delegate William Lancaster, Lambert wrote, wasn’t worried that his generation might elect a non-Protestant, but that maybe in 400 or 500 years, a Papist or a Mahometan might be elected president – if there were no religious test.

When the first Congress met, amendments to the Constitution were proposed and the states ratified 10 of them, the first of which stated, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

When Jefferson was elected president, a Baptist group in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote to him asking for assurances about their standing, since the Congregationalists still held dominant religious status. (The Congregational Church continued as a taxpayer-supported “established church” until 1818.)

In his reply, Jefferson knew he was writing for a broader audience than the Danbury Baptists. In a letter vetted by his attorney general, he explained that the religion clauses of the First Amendment were “building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

While Jefferson’s phrase was not entirely new, it was certainly definitive. Indeed, much of the contemporary commentary by the Christian Right about the wallof- separation metaphor and Jefferson’s interpretation has focused on side issues, such as that Jefferson was in France when the First Amendment was written and that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution or the First Amendment. These things are true, but irrelevant. The underlying principles are clear from the history of the Virginia Statute, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and, later, the First Amendment, and the views of many others.

The religion clause drew on the Virginia Declaration of Rights – written by George Mason with assistance on the religion section by Madison – which had unanimously passed a revolutionary state convention in 1776. A month later, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, drawing on ideas and language from the Virginia Declaration. It was also an influential source for all of the founding documents and completes a plumb line of thought that runs through the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the federal Constitution and the First Amendment.

The religion provision of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights stated: “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”

Over the next 15 years, during which the language defining the rights we still use today was developed, references to Christianity were dropped as an obviously confusing, if not contradictory way of defining universal principles. It additionally avoided the question of which version of Christianity was being referred to.

These three of the most influential men on matters of freedom of religion, Jefferson, Madison and Mason, knew and worked closely together for decades. Their views on freedom of conscience were shared and unambiguous. All opposed religious establishments, including and especially the use of taxpayer funds to underwrite religious institutions and clergy. All believed that people should be free to believe as they will, to change their mind as often as they like or not at all. When these men said “free,” they meant free from the coercion or undue influence of the government or powerful religious institutions.

But all knew that, as simple and profound as these ideas might be, moving them through the culture and the laws, even with the force of the Constitution and the First Amendment behind them, would be a struggle. It was and it is, and we are still working on it.

Indeed, the current election cycle has already seen various religion-related controversies. These include the ongoing fear mongering that the professing Christian, Barack Obama, is secretly a Muslim; the obstacles faced by Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, Mormons who are running not only in the Republican primaries but also against historic anti-Mormonism on the part of conservative Christians whose votes they need; and the advocacy of Christian nationalism by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic, has gone so far as to denounce our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Santorum is upset about Kennedy’s historic 1960 campaign statement that set the standard for politicians for a generation: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

The basic principles of religious freedom in the U.S. did not come easily, but the formative period between the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 were decisive and the principles that emerged, while contested to this day, are clear.

While it is important for our purposes to underscore that Jefferson was well aware of the need to provide for equality for religious minorities, he was also writing directly in the wake of the launching of the American Revolution. The passage of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted principally by Mason and passed just a month before the Declaration of Independence, stated that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” It has taken time to extend this idea in all of its implications to the states and to make it real in the lives of all citizens. And even as we are continuing to work on it, we are also continuing to contend with efforts by the Christian Right to scale, tunnel under or demolish the wall of separation. The Christian Right does not like the way that the Constitution and the First Amendment deal with matters of religion and government any better today than their ideological ancestors.

Of course, it should also be noted that the Constitution, for all of the high sounding principles of equality of belief, also perpetuated inequality – of women, slaves and people who did not own property. What’s more, it took the 14th Amendment’s direction (1868) to apply the Bill of Rights to the states, and a series of 20th century Supreme Court decisions to more fully extend these rights to all. For all of these flaws, this founding principle contained the powerful possibility for change, and has played a central role in propelling the kinds of changes envisioned by Jefferson and so many of the founding generation, even those that were far beyond their personal and collective reach at the time. The right to believe differently has made possible every advance in human and civil rights that has come since.

Wherever we personally stand in relation to the progress of religious freedom in America, we all need to know, deep in the bones of our understanding of politics in America, that it was this founding right to believe as we will, to believe differently than the rich and the powerful, and to change our minds free from interference of the state or unduly powerful religious institutions, that was the main original contribution of the framers of the Constitution and is a central part of our story as a nation. §

Frederick Clarkson is a journalist and author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1997) and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America (IG Publishing, 2008).

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