A Less-Than-Saintly Patron Saint of Separationism

A Less-Than-Saintly Patron Saint of Separationism July 1, 2016

Official Jefferson portrait--cropped

[Christianity is] our particular superstition.–Thomas Jefferson.*

Let me make clear from the start that I will not be getting into the whole Sally Hemings affair (if you can forgive the phrase). To say that Thomas Jefferson had personal failings is like saying that the United States of America was built on a foundation of moral hypocrisy (i.e. all men are created equal, except if you don’t happen to be white, or a man, or a landowner). Duh.

And the man who wrote those ringing words about equality in our Constitution had moral hypocrisy in spades.

But this post is about the Thomas Jefferson who is the patron saint of Church/State separation. (You may have guessed that from the title.)

Now, Jefferson also had temperamental flaws which often got in the way of his message. He was not a man to pussyfoot around. It’s a good thing that the internet was centuries away. Of course, even in those pre-pre-pre-Twitter days, Jefferson knew better to let his anti-Christian and anti-clerical venom air in public. But his attitudes were well known, anyway (which the John Adams campaign was quick to exploit).

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

Don’t hold back, Tom, what do you really think?

But Tall Tom Jefferson, as we sang in a school chorus production (he can do it, yes he can, ran the title song’s chorus), was most likely not a Revolution-era New Atheist. He was a firebrand deist, though in later years, Jefferson identified as a Unitarian.

The Unitarian Church seems to have been a safe harbor for non-traditional believers at the time. I’ve jokingly called the modern Unitarian Universalist Church organized agnosticism. For several years in my adolescence, I was a Unitarian myself, after my mother married a Unitarian. It made a handy dodge whenever people asked my religion after we moved to the buckle of the Bible Belt, Birmingham, Alabama.

But I digress. the Virginia Voltaire notoriously put a razor to the New Testament to extract only the sayings he believed directly attributable to Jesus, whom he deemed a great philosopher…and nothing more. The result can be read here: The Jefferson Bible.

As you can imagine, Jefferson did not spare the God of the Old Testament from his poison pen.

A being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.

God should’ve put that on his book jacket.

On religious persecution…

What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be one right, and ours be that one, we should wish to see the other 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force.

I love the casual admittance that our culture’s religious beliefs might not be the correct one. And what about the standard accusation of theists that without God there’s no morality?

If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some men do, that no such being exists.

“The moral sense,” he wrote in a separate letter, “was instinct, and innate.”

Indeed it was, even as he slept with a woman deemed his property. But then, Jefferson was a man of his time.

Here is Part One and Part Two of this continuing Founding Fathers series.

*All quotes drawn from Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority.

Browse Our Archives