Opinion: Most important political right is religious freedomBefore his death on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson wrote a note discovered after his death. He suggested an epitaph for his gravestone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
By: Robert Duffett, President, Dakota Wesleyan University
Before his death on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson wrote a note discovered after his death. He suggested an epitaph for his gravestone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”
Of all his accomplishments, he wanted posterity to remember him as an author and educator!
Some argue America is a Christian nation. In part, they are correct. The Congregational and Anglican/Episcopalian Church were the established churches in most of the colonies before the War of Independence (1776-1783). These churches enjoyed a privileged status. They were part of the Colonial government except in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Taxpayers paid for minister’s salaries and church buildings even if they did not attend church. Members of dissenting churches (any church other than the Congregational or the Anglican/Episcopalian church) could be fined for not attending the established church and mandated to pay taxes to it! Established churches were funded much like the state of South Dakota funds its public school system. Jefferson thought this untenable, sinful and tyrannical. His Statute sought to end the church/state association.
Throughout his life Jefferson was brutally attacked for his religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Political opponents and clergy often hurled epithets of atheist, deist, infidel and anti-God. Jefferson was not an atheist or deist. He was born, baptized, married and buried in Virginia’s Anglican/Episcopalian Church. He was a lifelong, regular church attendee, both in Monticello and as president. He studied religion all his life writing his own version of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He completed it while in the White House. This “Jefferson Bible” was his attempt to preserve the pure teachings and morals of Jesus untainted from clergy dogma and church hierarchy. Although he was critical of clergy and their power, he had several clergy friends.
Jefferson agreed and dissented with Christian theology. He did not believe in the Trinity, atonement or miracles. He did believe in prayer, divine providence in the world and the afterlife. He was a person of Christian faith and knowledgeable about Christian theology.
His Statute for Religious Freedom had three goals: disestablish the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Virginia; repeal all laws restricting the freedom of worship, and end state government involvement in church matters. His friend James Madison introduced the bill in the 1784-1785 legislative session which was passed into law in 1786 when Jefferson was in France.
He did not think his statute would destroy faith or the church but free both from the corrosive clutches of an alliance of church and state. Jefferson thought disestablishing the church would, ironically, make it stronger and its clergy more effective.
His Declaration of 1776 disestablished the political bonds between England and her American colonies. His Statute of 1786 disestablished the religious bonds between church and state. Could it be that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” necessitates the freedom to believe or not, attend church or merely watch the NFL on Sunday?
There is here a Paul Harvey “rest of the story.” Those most enthusiastic to separate church and state in the 1770s and ’80s were Baptists and evangelicals — predecessors of today’s religious right! Why did Baptist leader John Leland campaign as a “Jefferson Itinerant” against the conservative, Federalist John Adams in the 1800 presidential election? Why did the Baptists of Cheshire, Mass., make and deliver to Jefferson at the White House a 1,200 pound congratulatory cheese? Why did Danbury Baptists rejoice in the high wall of “separation between church and state” that Jefferson promised in his famous letter to them? Jefferson, the Baptists and evangelicals then affirmed several profound political and religious insights often overlooked today by many Evangelicals and the religious right.
The most important political right is religious freedom. Authentic faith is a personal matter between God and the individual. The state should never ever be given another opportunity to “nuzzle” its way between the individual and God or influence the church.
Robert G. Duffett is president of Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell.