Jefferson and Religious Restraint

How strange it is to hear evangelicals… claim Thomas Jefferson as one of their own, when in his day, he was accused of being an infidel by the Christian clergy.  Jefferson left little doubt about his religious beliefs in his voluminous personal papers.  It is his place in our history and especially our founding that drives advocates of all stripes to want Jefferson’s opinion on their side.  We must remember, Jefferson was not an atheist, far from it; he believed in personal religious freedom and public restraint.  Jefferson did advocate the separation of church and state,

public record

“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.”     Jan. 1, 1802

It was the public attacks on his beliefs… that prompted Jefferson to write Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786.  It is a simple proposition, letting your neighbor worship as they wish, even if that means not worshiping at all.  Jefferson said it best,

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”    Notes on the State of Virginia 1782

Jefferson was fascinated by theology… and could talk about it for hours on end.  A deeply personal project was the Jefferson Bible.  He analyzed the New Testament and removed what he considered to be “so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture” along with any mention of miracles or the supernatural (always the scientist.)  Jefferson was interested in the moral philosophy of Jesus.  The Enlightenment taught Jefferson to seek the rational path to moral clarity.

You don’t have to look very hard to learn… about Jefferson’s religious beliefs.  They are found in his personal papers and private correspondence.  This is the essence of Jeffersonian religion–keep it to yourself.

“Our particular principles of  religion are a subject of accountability to God alone. I inquire after no man’s, and  trouble none with mine.”

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