Thomas Jefferson: Defender of Religious Freedom?

“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study this September showing that this potential for penalty and discrimination [against religious freedom] is becoming a reality. Pew documented evidence of increased social hostility and government restrictions against religion in America. When compared with the rest of the world, the United States rose from the ‘low’ to the ‘moderate’ category on Pew’s Government Restrictions Index. And because the study only tracks changes through the middle of 2010, federal attacks on conscience protections for healthcare workers in 2011 and the US Department of Health and Human Services contraception mandate in 2012 were not even factored into the study’s results.”

The above paragraph comes from an article published last month by Brian Walsh, T. J. Whittle, and Garrett Bauman over at The Public Discourse, a site that is consistently helpful on matters of faith in public life. As the authors mention, those wishing to curtail religious freedom often find their champion in one Thomas Jefferson, the esteemed founding father who famously coined the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State.” According to Walsh, et al., a closer look at Jefferson’s writings reveals that he could indeed be considered a partisan in the debate surrounding religious freedom. But contemporary readers might be surprised to find out which side he supported. They note:

Despite the caricature of Jefferson’s views on religious freedom…[he] was not a simplistic anti-religious zealot who desired to extinguish all expression of religion from American public life. His “Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” in which he famously used the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State,” has been incorrectly and incoherently treated as his principal and all-encompassing contribution to religious freedom.

Instead of continuing with this misconception, 

It is imperative to distinguish the long-simmering contention and disagreement over Jefferson’s beliefs on religion from his clear public support for religious liberty. When it came to religious freedom and rights of conscience, Jefferson was both a strong critic of official government establishments of religion and a staunch proponent of the free exercise of religion.

As the authors detail, though he was openly critical of many religious beliefs held by his fellow citizens, Jefferson was a driving influence for the inclusion of religious freedom in the Constitution, urging his protégé James Madison to recognize it in an additional bill of rights. And consistent with his most famous work, The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson believed this right originated not from humankind, but from our Creator. Since the federal government did not bestow such freedom, its role was to recognize and protect it. It could never take it away.

Walsh et al. go on to make the vital point in their article that religious freedom isn’t to be confined to private belief (“believers languishing for their faith in prisons across the globe have the mere freedom to believe”). Rather it includes its expression in public life, as indicated by the phrase “free exercise” in the First Amendment, a point on which Jefferson would again surely agree.

Finally, the authors argue that even religious skeptics would do well in following Jefferson’s support for religious freedom:

Why would a sophisticated thinker like Jefferson, with elaborate reasons buttressing his harsh critique of the Christian beliefs of his contemporaries, promote a position on religious freedom that orthodox believers of many faiths argue for today? Jefferson understood the power that the truth has to prevail in a free and open marketplace of ideas. He of course considered his own understanding of religion to be true, and thought that—if he was indeed correct—his views would eventually win out. …Instead of opposing religious liberty, those who share Jefferson’s skepticism toward traditional religion thus have good reason to join him in advocating robust rights of free exercise.

I would only add that Christians, understanding all truth to find its source ultimately in Christ (John 14:6), should have no qualms about encouraging its pursuit in a free and robust exchange of ideas.

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