Founding Skeptic

Founding Skeptic

Jefferson is often quoted as a champion of religious freedom, but, says one critic, he "tried harder than any other Founding Father to remove religion definitively from the political life of the new nation."

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The source: “Jefferson the Skeptic” by Brooke Allen, in The Hudson Review, Summer 2006.

Thomas Jefferson was no Christian, writes critic Brooke Allen. He revered Jesus Christ as a philosopher and moral leader, but he described Christianity as “our particular superstition” and rejected the Immaculate Conception; Jesus’ deification, miracles, resurrection, and ascension; plus the Eucharist, original sin, and atonement. He thought the Holy Trinity “hocus pocus,” and the God of the Old Testament to be “cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.” In his day, he was as popular among the clergy as atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was after she won her case against prayer in public schools in ­1963.

Yet when Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Indepen­dence, he cited the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in its first sentence and ended with the assertion of “a firm Reliance on the Pro­tection of Divine Providence.”

Jefferson said just enough good things about religion for the Moral Majority and throngs of ­born-­again Christians to cite him in support of their claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich even in­cluded the Jefferson Memorial on his Christian tour of the District of Columbia, where he pointed out on the inner dome the inscription, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Reconciling Jefferson’s words with his beliefs requires context, writes Allen, author of several books, including Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. When Jefferson’s polite nods to the prevailing religious beliefs of his day are examined in situ, they reveal his views to be consistent and supportive of a strict “wall of separation between Church and State” (in Jefferson’s own phrase).

Jefferson introduced the “wall of separation” concept in a 1802: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God. . . . 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.”

Jefferson’s phrase “upon the altar of God” actually came as part of a “characteristically Jeffersonian explosion against priests and clergymen,” Allen writes. Mocking the clergy in his presidential campaign in 1800, Jefferson said they all hoped to have their own sect en­shrined as the established church. But he said he had sworn eternal hostility upon the “altar of God” to religious tyrants who jockeyed for power and ­money.

Other ­religious-­sounding invocations, such as the phrase “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence, were standard language used, not by conventional Christians, but by deists in the 18th century. The declaration’s phrase “firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Provi­dence” was added by ­Congress.

Allen says that the efforts of modern political figures to establish that Thomas Jefferson was a good Christian who really didn’t mean what he said about the separation of church and state are flimsy and smack of ­desperation.

“Jefferson,” Allen writes, “tried harder than any other Founding Father to remove religion defin­itively from the political life of the new nation.”

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