Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Faith of the Founders: Thomas Jefferson

One of the most vocal beliefs that I hear today in the marketplace of ideas is a revisionist view of history presented by conservative Evangelical Christians. It's the notion that the Founding Fathers of the United States were Christian men that were founding a Christian nation. This ideology feeds into the notion that the past 30 years or so of Supreme Court decisions concerning the Separation of Church and State have been wrongly decided. They often cite the opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas on the Establishment Clause:

"The Establishment Clause provides that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.' As a textual matter, this Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion."
"Quite simply, the Establishment Clause is best understood as a federalism provision--it protects state establishments from federal interference but does not protect any individual right."

They use opinions such as this to bolster their belief in the Christianity of the Founding Fathers and their ideal of the United States as a Christian nation by design. I disagree and will start what I hope to be a series of posts on the topic by looking at the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, like many of the prominent Founding Fathers, was a deist by belief. Deism is essentially the belief in the "God of Nature" or a Creator that created the universe, set it in motion but does not actively involve itself in the workings of the universe any more. Deists also do not believe in "divine revelation" or that the Creator has revealed itself in any text or vision. It was a religious belief born out of the Enlightenment in 18th and 19th centuries and was quite popular among the upper class of Colonial America.

From Jefferson:

"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear."

While it is clear, especially from the Declaration, that Jefferson believed in a Creator, he most certainly was believer in Reason over over the Divine.

In his own words:

"I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology."


"Christianity...(has become) the most perverted system that ever shone on man. ...Rogueries, absurdities and untruths were perpetrated upon the teachings of Jesus by a large band of dupes and importers led by Paul, the first great corrupter of the teaching of Jesus."

Clearly while Jefferson was a religious man and seemingly a believer in the teachings of Jesus Christ, he certainly was not a follower of the religious faith that carries the name "Christianity".

In fact, Jefferson even composed his own version of the New Testament, called The Jefferson Bible, which extracted the life and teachings of Christ out of the existing Bible, leaving behind the miracles and mysticism. Again, obviously the acts of a serious moral philosopher that clearly was not a believer in any form of established Christianity that we know today.

Jefferson is also quite clear on the role of the Establishment Clause and the importance of a separation of church and state:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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."

When examined with a critical eye, it is clear that Thomas Jefferson was not a believer in Christianity, nor did he intend that religious ideology of any kind creep into our system of government. Jefferson was obviously a deist of a sort; a Unitarian that professed a belief in a Creator but held Reason and Enlightenment as the highest ideals of mankind. If, as Evangelical Christians now claim, the United States was intended to be a Christian nation founded on Christian ideals, then they most certainly must exclude Thomas Jefferson as a Founder and Framer of such a country.

Next up: James Madison...


DadOBot said...

Bravo! The revisionist history that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation has driven me nuts for years.

It is unfortunate that in learning to take ideas in scripture "through faith" without question, much of the church is robbed of the ability to think critically on their own (not that the school system really focuses on this highly important aspect of learning much). They simply sit in their pews and swallow whatever is spoon-fed to them as truth -- as I used to.

I can't wait until you get to some of the other founders, especially those who -- by their own words -- "went a whoring" before sitting down to the task of writing the Constitution. It's a bit curious that the party of moral values doesn't mention that when they discuss the founding fathers. ;)

What's more, trying to establish the US as a Christian Nation disregards why America was colonized in the first place.

Samurai Sam said...

trying to establish the US as a Christian Nation disregards why America was colonized in the first place.

Thank you, sir! Like I said, I see it as an attempt to sidestep the First Amendment. I would actually have more respect for the conservative Christian political movement if it would just come out and say "Hey, we want to Amend the first Amendment." At least that would be honest.

I plan on looking at Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, Washington and Paine at this point. I may throw in Patrick Henry just for some balance.

DadOBot said...

But if they just openly said, "We want to make the US a theocracy," do you think they would get anywhere? I take that back, a good portion of the population might need to look that up but never do so -- thinking that it must be a good idea since it’s being put forth by the “moral majority”. It would be the inverse of Smathers vs. Pepper, 1950.

They have to sneak up on the public and work slowly in their quest to legislate "Christian morality". Mind you, they're seemingly becoming more and more mobilized and successful in their tactics. *shudder*

curious said...

I am curious as to what impact you believe Jefferson's personal views regarding religion have on First Amendment jurisprudence? Jefferson was not even in the US when the First was drafted, debated, and adopted.

Samurai Sam said...

Whether Jefferson was in the U.S. or not during the ratifying of the Bill of Rights isn't really material either way. My point is that the argument that the United States is a Christian nation and that it's Founders were all or even mostly Christian is not supported factually. Jefferson is clearly not a Christian and his writings on the Establishment Clause, along with Madison's, have been used as benchmarks regarding the intent of a separation of church and state. Personally, I think such a "wall" should exist regardless of whether anyone before myself believed it or not. It's good policy for both institutions to keep the state and the church separated.

Whether or not Jefferson's opinions regarding law and government in the United States are meaningful opens up the argument as to whether any of the opinions of any of the Founding Fathers are meaningful. I happen to think they are but others are free to disagree; many have at various times in history. But if Evangelical Christians are going to use a certain interpretation of what E.C.'s believe the Founding Fathers' intentions were in forming our laws and government, then I have to assume that the E.C. community considers the Founding Fathers relevant and address that in kind.

Thanks for posting, curious! I love a good discussion...

curious said...

But don't the quotes go both ways? Consider:

John Adams: "We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

George Washington in his farewell address (which was written by Hamilton): "It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, our religion and morality are the indispensable supporters."

John Quincy Adams (chairman of the American Bible Society): "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this-it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity."

John Jay: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian Nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."

I will stop there; I think you get the point.

Samurai Sam said...

I don't think you've made the point you were attempting to make. Adams, in his quote, isn't advocating for Evangelical Christianity, he's advocating for morality and religion. I'm not saying that the Founding Fathers were all atheists, just that they were not all Evangelical Christians founding a Christian nation.

On Washington: I'll address him when I get to that post (he's on my list).

John Quincy Adams was likely a Christian by all accounts. I don't deny that. I'm not saying that there were no Christians among the Founding Fathers (if one considers Adams a Founder), just that a majority of the most influential and respected among them were not and that they did not found a Christian nation. Of the Adams' quote I would ask "To what Christian principals is he referring?" There's a big difference between the moral teachings of Christ, which Jefferson believed in, and the metaphysical beliefs in the Hebrew God and his Son, the Savior of all Mankind.
As for John Jay, he, like Patrick Henry, was the exception that proves the rule. They both were devout Christians and advocated for a Christian nation. They clearly did not get what they wanted.

One other point that bears mentioning is that most of these men were politicians in addition to intellectuals. I have no doubt that certain individual quotes of their's could be construed to sound as if the speaker were a Christian, likely reflecting the constituency to which they were speaking or writing. Taking that into account is why I cite and will continue to site various quotes and sources that build a more complete picture of each man.
If I wrote in a blog post "Praise be to Allah" one could insinuate from that quote alone that I was a Muslim. However, if they were to read more of my writings, they would clearly see their error. Thus it is with our Founding Fathers.

By the way, curious, you wouldn't by chance be an engineer from Illinois would you?

curious said...

If Jay was the "exception" rather than the rule, why did Washington nominate him as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court? Why did Madison ask him to write several essays in the Federalist Papers? Why did Hamilton recruit him to get NY to ratify the Constitution? Why was he elected governor of NY? If Jay really was advocating the establishment of a Christian nation, would any of this have occurred? Jay wasn’t an exception, he was mainstream.

No, I am not an engineer; I am an attorney.

Samurai Sam said...

Jay was an exception in the sense that he was openly and vocally Christian in his beliefs, as opposed to Jefferson and Madison who were Deists.

Also, let me clarify something: John Jay advocated for a Christian nation in the sense that he thought an educated citizenry would naturally come to the understanding that Christianity was the One True Faith and thus elect Christian leaders (as you mentioned above).

From Jay:

"I have long been of opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds . . ."

What he did not advocate is Christian faith being built into the Constitution, thus creating a nation founded on Christianity. He is not dissimilar to Jefferson in this respect.

As for whether or not Jay was considered "mainstream" I think that is irrelevant. What is "mainstream" but a subjective judgement from a given point of view? Jay was an abolitionist, which may have been mainstream in New York but almost certainly would have been radical in Georgia. Jay advocated for government-funded public works while Governor of New York, a position which would be considered "mainstream" by New Deal Democrats but leftist by Free Market conservatives.

What is relevant in looking at John Jay, is that he supported the ratification of our Constitution, which established a society in which religion of any kind is confined to private interests. If an Evangelical Christian wants to say that John Jay, Founding Father, was a Christian, then he/she is absolutely correct. If said E.C. says that the U.S. was founded by John Jay and compatriots as a Christian nation founded on Christian ideology or that most to all of the Founding Fathers were themselves Christians, then he/she is either mistaken or revising history.

curious said...

Then damn that revisionist Joseph Story (who is foolishly considered the foremost historian of the founding era) and damn his revisionist book, Commentaries on the Constitution, in which he wrote:

"Every American colony, from its foundation down to the revolution...did openly, by the whole course of its laws and institutions, support and sustain, in some form, the Christian religion; and almost invariably gave a peculiar sanction to some of its fundamental doctrines…

At the time [the first amendment was written], the general if not universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state so far as was compatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of worship."

That doesn't sound like a society in which religion was to be banned from government.

Samurai Sam said...

Oh, I don't think we need to cast Mr. Story or his writings into the infernal pit. Let's just look at them more closely:

"Every American colony, from its foundation down to the revolution..."

I'm referring in my post about the founding and Constitution of the United States as a sovereign nation, not the British colonies that preceded it. As you undoubtedly know, Britain had state-institutionalized Christianity and thus it should come as no surprise that Britain's colonies would as well. This is one of the very reasons why our Founding Fathers made certain that such was not the case with the United States.

As far as a majority of the people supporting Christianity then, what of it? The same is true today. That just illustrates the need for the Establishment Clause: to prevent the Christian majority from legislating its religious beliefs onto the country at large (Madison called such the "Tyranny of the Majority"). Had they desired, the Founding Fathers could have written Christianity into our Constitution and likely gotten it ratified, given the public faith of the day. That they chose not to only further cements my point that, with a few exceptions, they were not Christian men and they were not establishing a Christian nation.

One further point: I don't believe that religion should be banned from the government in totality. I believe they should remain completely separate entities. No taxes due from churches and no tax-payer supported grants given. No laws which give one religion's views prominence over another. No institutionalization of religious edicts or symbology in tax-payer financed government institutions, unless full consideration is given to all faiths and none (the Supreme Court building is a good example of a healthy mixture of religious symbology for historical effect). If Evangelical Christians don't like the fact that their faith will not be given any preference or prominence by the government, then they, as a political force, should work to have a Constitutional Amendment introduced that changes the First Amendment. Otherwise, they will have to accept that, while they are free to practice their faith, they do not live in a founded on Christianity by Christian Founders.

curious said...

You looked at Mr. Story's writing "more closely" by taking ONE sentence and interpreting through inaccurate historical lenses. The colonies were "British" in name only. In fact, the first colonists were people fleeing Britain because of religious persecution. To suggest that the colonies were based on the same government structure of Britain is simply false.

Furthermore, you disregard the pre-revolutionary colonists as not consistent with the Founding Fathers. This too is incorrect. Who do you think governed the pre-revolutionary colonies? That's right. It was the founding fathers. They did not rise to prominence from obscurity; for the most part they were politicians and attorneys who already were in places of power and influence within the pre-revolutionary colonies.

Finally, Story's statement bears repeating: At the time [the first amendment was written], the general if not universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state so far as was compatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of worship."

This is all EGs have ever claimed. Accepting this historical fact doesn't mean that Christianity is an established religion or that all other religions are discouraged or that all of the Founding Fathers were Christians. It simply recognizes that this nation was founded by Christian people.

Gifted-1 said...

You're giving me a head-ache.

DadOBot said...

"This is all EGs have ever claimed. Accepting this historical fact doesn't mean that Christianity is an established religion or that all other religions are discouraged or that all of the Founding Fathers were Christians. It simply recognizes that this nation was founded by Christian people."

No, current problem is that the above idea is being put forward to advance an agenda. The whole point of the Evangelical Christian activists bringing up the "this country was founded on Christian principles" is so that they can justify legislating their "Christian" morality which completely disregards the "All men are created equal" part.

And those Christian people that founded this country burned Puritans at the stake (along with the witches). No wonder they were mostly Christian. They also took the land of the native people, sometimes butchered them when they protested, and kept slaves (which the Bible doesn't seem to have a problem with).

So much for frelling moral values. Who are today's Evangelical Christians to dare call me less moral than they? I'll be damned if I stand silently by while Bush and his cronies slowly work with the E.C.s to bring the law in line with their interpretation of the Bible at the cost of women's rights, scientific progress, and basic "God given" freedom.

So most of the original non-native Americans were Christians. So what? Not all of the founding fathers were. This nation was formed in a way that made sure that one religion -- even the most popular, established one in this country -- would not be the government sanctioned law of the land. The fact that there are people in this country who are tying to circumvent this, partially by telling Christian favoring half-truths about the founding fathers -- to masses who will swallow most everything that comes from a pulpit whole -- is exactly our problem.