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.
"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...