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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly

December 1994


Jefferson and
Religious Freedom


by Merrill D. Peterson

THOMAS Jefferson was a methodical man all his life, and when he came to the end of that life, so crowded with accomplishments, it was perfectly in character for him to compose his own epitaph -- indeed, to design his tombstone as well. He wished most to be remembered, he wrote, for three "testimonials" of his life:


      Author of the Declaration of American Independence

         of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom

              and Father of the University of Virginia

              

The inclusion of the statute in such a noble trinity has sometimes perplexed Jefferson's admirers. Of course he would wish to be remembered for the Declaration of Independence, which not only gave birth to the new American nation but provided it with a democratic creed and the world with a philosophy of human rights. And of course he would wish to be remembered for the University of Virginia: it was an enduring monument to his genius, not only in the physical architecture of the grounds and buildings but also in its educational spirit -- so much so that it bore witness to the truth of Emerson's aphorism "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." But why should Jefferson include a mere statute, one of the laws of a single state, among the testimonials of his life? This essay is an answer to that question. And it maintains not only that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom belongs in Jefferson's incisive epitaph but that it is, in fact, one of the main pillars of American democracy and a beacon of light and liberty to the world.

Viewed historically, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is the supreme expression of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in the life and work of Thomas Jefferson. He was a bookish man. In youth "a hard student," as he described himself, he was no less so in old age. He compiled three libraries during his lifetime. His great library of some 6,000 volumes became the foundation of the Library of Congress in 1815. And no sooner had he disposed of it than he commenced another, saying, "I cannot live without books." Growing up on the outskirts of civilization, in a kind of intellectual limbo, the young Jefferson learned from books -- how to design a house, measure an eclipse, form a government. He extended his experience beyond the narrow range of Colonial life by means of the new learning of the age and gained a vantage point from which to perceive, through the eye of reason, things as they ought to be. His heroes were neither statesmen nor warriors but philosophers -- in particular Bacon, Newton, and Locke, upon whom the edifice of the Enlightenment was raised. From his early exposure, at college, to the English and Scottish rationalists, Jefferson turned to the Continental votaries of the Enlightenment. Before the American Revolution he read Voltaire, Montesquieu, Holbach, Helvetius, Beccaria, and others. Later, in the 1780s, when he took up residence in Paris, the capital of the Enlightenment, he became something of a philosophe himself.

The dominant spirit of the Enlightenment was one of skepticism toward all received truths and of untrammeled free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge. "Everything," Diderot enjoined in the great Encyclopedie, "must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection." The mission of philosophy was no longer to reflect the world, or contemplate another, but to change it. "Knowledge is power," Bacon had said; and Jefferson was never more typically a child of the Enlightenment than in his youthful conviction that reason and inquiry may lead man away from whatever is false, twisted, and capricious in human affairs toward the truths inherent in the nature of things. Man had been too long alienated from nature. For centuries he had been dominated by dogmatic authority and superstition, which was embodied, above all, in the alliance of kings and priests, Church and State. Now those false idols were crumbling, and man might take control of his destiny by discovering the laws of nature and using them in the service of the species. Newton had demonstrated the order of the physical universe; Locke had pointed the way to a science of mind as well as of government; Linnaeus and Buffon had begun to impose system on the chaos of living things; and Adam Smith, coincidentally in 1776, broached the idea of an autonomous economic order governed by immutable laws of nature. All such laws were permanent, universal, harmonious, intelligible, beneficent, so man might feel at home in nature. The faith was aggressively secular, utilitarian, and progressive, its end being the increased freedom and happiness of humankind. In the great correspondence of their old age his glum friend John Adams liked to twit Jefferson on the exploded hopes of the Enlightenment. But the sunny Virginian would have none of it. He went to his grave believing that the future would be better than the past and that the advance of freedom was irreversible. As he told Adams, he steered his bark "with hope in the head, leaving fear astern."

The optimistic faith of the Enlightenment informed all of Jefferson's work. We see it in Jefferson the scientist, Jefferson the educator, Jefferson the statesman -- all facets of the multifaceted genius. His public policies often reflected the rationalism of the Enlightenment: thus the decimal system of coinage with the dollar unit; thus the rectilinear land-survey system for the Transappalachian West, the effects of which are still visible to anyone who flies over the prairies and plains today and views the linear patchwork of the fields below; thus, too, though it was not adopted, Jefferson's methodically developed plan for a uniform system of weights and measures based on a natural and universal standard.

But it is Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book he managed to write in a crowded lifetime, that offers the best avenue into the enlightened mind of Thomas Jefferson. The book is by itself worthy of an essay. Meant as a contribution to the European Enlightenment, it was also a prolegomenon to the American Enlightenment, for here we find Jefferson, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, embarked upon the intellectual discovery of his native land, the greater Virginia of that day, which extended from Kentucky to the Great Lakes and westward to the Mississippi River. A work inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment became a vehicle of American nationalism -- of American self-definition. First published in Paris in 1785, Notes on Virginia appeared in an improved English edition in 1787; many American editions followed. Chapter 17, on religion, is especially interesting in relation to our subject. In it Jefferson gave his own philosophical account of the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia, a struggle he later remembered as ''the severest" in which he had ever engaged.


JEFFERSON'S leadership in that struggle commenced in the fall of 1776, when he returned from Congress, in Philadelphia, and took his seat as the representative of Albemarle County in the General Assembly of the newly established Commonwealth of Virginia. Having set forth the fundamental principles of the new nation in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was eager to embody those principles in the laws of Virginia. He advocated a host of reforms of the old order: a more democratic suffrage and equal representation, an open and individualistic system of landholding shorn of feudal survivals, a more rational and humanitarian code of criminal justice, gradual emancipation of the slaves, a comprehensive system of public education, and, of course, disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the institution of a new order of religious life founded on the twin principles of absolute religious freedom and separation of Church and State. Several of the reforms were never enacted. Old Virginia rejected Jefferson's liberal vision of a new Virginia. After a decade-long campaign, however, his effort in behalf of religious freedom was crowned with success.

The Church of England had been established in the infancy of the colony. There was nothing unusual about this. Everywhere in the world Church and State were united, and dissenters from the one true faith, the established religion, although they might be tolerated, suffered numerous pains and penalties. Virginia had been one of six American colonies with an Anglican establishment. That establishment had never been strong, however, and as the number of dissenters increased during the eighteenth century, the Church steadily lost vigor, influence, and followers. In Virginia, as Jefferson remarked, perhaps as many as two thirds of the citizens were dissenters from the established Church. The Revolution rendered this conflict intolerable.

Jefferson had been disappointed that the Virginia constitution of 1776 left the establishment in place. Fortunately, the celebrated Declaration of Rights, adjoined to that constitution, asserted the true principle: "All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." As originally drafted by George Mason, the article guaranteed only "the fullest Toleration in the exercise of religion." But at the behest of James Madison, the young delegate from Orange County, the language of toleration was dropped in favor of the language of natural right: "All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion." The change amounted to only a few words, yet it was momentous. The English Act of Toleration, it was commonly thought, had extended to Virginia. Under it dissenting Protestants -- not Roman Catholics or Jews, please note -- were allowed to hold religious services provided that their ministers and places of worship were registered with the government. The idea of toleration assumed an official religion along with the right of the state to grant favor to dissenters or withhold it. Toleration, therefore, fell well short of equality. As Thomas Paine said, "Toleration is not the opposite of intoleration, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it." On the principle of toleration nothing needed to be changed in Virginia law and practice in 1776. Toleration was the status quo. But if the principle of individual freedom and right became the basis of legislation, there must be a sweeping change in the civil and religious life of the commonwealth.

And so it happened. When the first General Assembly met, in October of 1776, it was flooded with petitions for the disestablishment of the Church and the removal of disabilities from dissenters. One petition, from Prince Edward County, looked to the end of "a long night of ecclesiastical bondage" and to a new day in which Virginia would be "an asylum for free inquiry, knowledge, and the virtuous of every denomination." Another prayed "that every denomination . . . be put on an equal footing." The Hanover Presbytery observed that "every argument for civil liberty gains additional strength when applied to liberty in the concerns of religion," thereby recognizing the importance of this liberty to every other liberty. In this campaign the battalions were provided by the dissenting sects Methodists, Presbyterians, and, above all, Baptists. Their motives were clearly religious; they sought, as had Roger Williams -- and William Penn before them, the liberty of their own faith. They were marshaled and led, however, by liberals and rationalists like Jefferson and Madison, who, while friendly to religion, were not sectarians, and aimed to secure the republic and its citizens from the "spiritual tyranny" of any and every religion. The two groups shared a goal, though for different reasons. And so, by the unique logic of American history, the seekers after salvation and the seekers after freedom and enlightenment were allies in the Virginia struggle.

Jefferson outlined his whole philosophy of the subject in a speech delivered to the House of Delegates in November. (There is no record of the speech; what follows is based on Jefferson's notes.) He began with a history lesson on the evils of religious establishments. Much of this concerned the Old World. But even in Virginia, he noted, the laws punished heresy by death, and denial of the Trinity by three years' imprisonment; the law of blasphemy punished religious belief as well as speech; freethinkers might have their children taken from them under Virginia law; church attendance was compulsory; and so on. To be sure, the laws were for the most part dead letters. But that did not remove the stigma of the laws, and it offered no security against returning oppression and injustice. The ongoing persecution of Baptist ministers, in particular, was notorious. These "disturbers of the peace" had been hounded, silenced, and imprisoned. All dissenters were taxed to support the Anglican Church. This, too, was persecution. What kind of attachment might these people feel toward a government that discriminated against them on behalf of a Church and a clergy associated with the British enemy? Political realism as well as human right demanded disestablishment.

Jefferson then posed the fundamental question: "Has the state a right to adopt an opinion in matters of religion?" Answering with a resounding negative, he pursued the argument well beyond the original question of a single state Church. According to the Lockean, or contractual, theory of civil government, men enter into government to secure those rights they cannot secure themselves. But religious conscience, being wholly inward and private, is not one of these. It does not depend upon civil authority. Indeed, it cannot abide coercion, for religion in its nature depends upon the inward persuasions of the mind. Men and women are answerable for their religious beliefs solely to God. Jefferson later gave memorable expression to the doctrine in Notes on Virginia : "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg."

Regardless of the question of right, Jefferson went on, the State's intervention in religious matters was harmful to religion itself. Assailing the folly of state-supported and -mandated religions, Jefferson sounded like a Virginia Voltaire: "Millions of innocent men, women, and children since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites." The progress of truth in religion, as in science, depended upon the progress of free inquiry and private judgment over the coercion and error of authority, both civil and ecclesiastical. "It is error alone which needs the support of government," Jefferson declared. "Truth can stand by itself." Religious differences -- the multiplicity of sects and creeds in America -- are beneficial to society. "The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other." Religious differences are equally beneficial to religion, for they set up a virtuous competition among the sects and require them to stand on their own mettle rather than depending on external support. In the years to come Jefferson often reaffirmed his belief in the salubrity of America's religious pluralism. Writing to a rabbi who had sent him a discourse on the consecration of the synagogue in Savannah in 1821, he spoke of the two great principles proved by the American experience. First, he said, man can be trusted with the government of himself; and second, freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension and conflict, "the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is 'divided we stand, united we fall.'"


THE first contest, in 1776, ended in several small victories. The General Assembly repealed some of the most oppressive English statutes and exempted dissenters from taxes to support the Anglican Church. But the Church was not disestablished, and parish levies on its members to support it were not abolished, only suspended. At the same time, the assembly reserved decision on a new issue, a new proposal, offered as a kind of via media between the old establishment and the radical reform wanted by Jefferson. This called for a general tax on all citizens for the support of all Christian ministers. Everyone would have the assurance that his shilling went into the pocket of his minister, be he Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, or even Catholic. Churchmen, foreseeing the doom of the old order, hoped to salvage something by creating the broad foundation of a plural establishment. Always before in history the establishment of religion had meant official sanction and support of a single state Church. But now, in the course of religious controversy in Virginia, the concept took on new meaning: the civil support of Christianity without preference as to sect.

It was in part to close off this development that Jefferson drafted his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, in 1777. Two years later, after repeal of the levies on Anglicans, Jefferson introduced his bill in the assembly. Two plans were now before it. One, Jefferson's, was a root-and-branch rejection of any civil authority in matters of religion and an affirmation of complete freedom of belief and worship. The other, the "general assessment" plan, which authorized taxation in support of the Christian religion regardless of sect, did so on traditional grounds -- for instance, the recognized power of the state to diffuse knowledge, restrain vice, and further the peace and good order of society. A similar plan for a plural establishment, although confined to Protestant Christianity, had been adopted in South Carolina the previous year. In Virginia the two plans came to be identified with the two giants of the state's politics: Patrick Henry, the first governor, now retiring, and Jefferson, the newly elected governor. The issue was clearly drawn. But neither plan could command a majority of the General Assembly in 1779 or for several years to come.

The conclusion of the controversy awaited the end of the Revolutionary War. In 1784 Congress sent Jefferson on a mission to France, and James Madison, his young friend, having just retired from Congress, assumed the leadership of the reform party in the House of Delegates. Petitions again poured into the assembly. The assessment plan now had the title "A Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion," and it had the backing of churchmen -- those friends of the longtime establishment now reorganized as the Protestant Episcopal Church -- as well as of the popular hero Henry. He was such a powerful figure in the blouse that Madison feared the assessment bill would pass. But Henry was a man of inordinate vanity, which made him vulnerable He wished to be governor again. Seizing on this opening, Madison obligingly kicked him upstairs to the governorship. In that office, under the constitution of that day, he had virtually no influence with the legislature. This was the good news. But there was bad news. The famed Hanover Presbytery, which had opposed a general tax, would cease to do so as long as the revenue was distributed fairly to all denominations. The Presbyterian clergy, Madison remarked acidly, were "as ready to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out." But for their suspicion that the bill's primary purpose was to prop up the Episcopalians, the Methodists, too, though never the Baptists, would have supported it. The bill made steady progress in the house. Madison waged a desperate delaying action. Finally, as the session drew to a close, he got the delegates to agree to postpone the vote on the bill until November of 1785.

In the spring of that year Madison wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. Handwritten and printed copies, without attribution of authorship, circulated throughout central Virginia. They were commonly attached to sheets of paper asking for signatures. The Memorial is a brilliant exposition of the philosophy crystallized in Jefferson's statute: it proceeds from the same Enlightenment directives of reason and right, and reaches the same conclusions. Madison maintained that tax support subverted rather than sustained true religion -- indeed, that it was "an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation." And Madison warned those who made light of the assessment plan, thinking it a harmless halfway point between the liberal skeptics and the sectarian religionists, of the dangers of compromising such a fundamental principle as religious freedom. "Who does not see," he asked, "that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?" The argument was persuasive. When the General Assembly met in the fall, it received more than a hundred petitions on religion. Only eleven supported the general-assessment plan; many others, with some 11,000 signatures, were copies of the Memorial and Remonstrance. Moreover, the Presbyterians, after further reflection, returned to the freedom coalition. Support for a plural establishment had virtually disappeared, and Madison seized the occasion to reintroduce Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. It passed with but one minor change. A senate amendment would have gutted the bill by striking the preamble, but the house stood firm, and the bill became law on January 16, 1786.

The statute is in three parts: the preamble, the enacting clause, and a final admonitory paragraph. The preamble, which is three fourths of the statute, is an eloquent manifesto -- about 600 words -- on the sanctity of the human mind. Its subject is not only religious liberty but also intellectual liberty of the widest latitude. Into it Jefferson poured all his rage against the cant and falsehood, the corruption and tyranny, that marked the history of the alliance between Church and State. He declared that religion and government are separate spheres, "that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions," that to allow government to intervene is wrong and destructive of both liberty and religion, that it is time for the government to interfere only when there are overt acts against peace and good order, and, finally, that "truth is great and will prevail if left to herself." The enacting clause says that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any church and that all shall be free to hold and exercise their religious beliefs without affecting their civil capacities. The last paragraph is curious. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, Jefferson repeatedly declared himself a rebel against the past. He believed that each generation should be allowed to make laws to suit itself and should be free of the public debts incurred by its predecessors. Yet he considered the principles of this statute so fundamental that he put future generations, and future lawmakers, on notice: "If any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."

Jefferson was United States Minister to France when the statute was enacted. He promptly saw to its publication. Before the year ran out, he reported to Madison on the praise accorded it. "I do not mean by the governments, but by the individuals which compose them," he wrote from Paris. "It has been translated into French and Italian, has been sent to most of the courts of Europe. . . . It is inserted in the new Encyclopedie. . . . It is comfortable," he concluded on a note of pride,

to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests and nobles; and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who has had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.


THE statute laid the foundation for the unique American tradition of Church-State relations. A few words should be said about some of the most common misconceptions about Jefferson and the statute. To address perhaps the most common fallacy: it is often maintained that nothing in the statute was meant to exclude governmental intrusion in matters of religion as long as the intrusion is on a neutral or nonpreferential basis. But that approach is precisely what was rejected in Virginia. And in the statute, after saying it is "sinful and tyrannical" to compel a person to support opinions he does not share, Jefferson went on to declare that even "forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasions" is wrong. Present-day neoconservatives and spokesmen for the religious right argue, for essentially political reasons, that a common religion is the necessary glue of the nation, that we began as a Christian people, and that however pluralist we may have become, the survival of the republic rests upon the foundation of Christian or perhaps Judeo-Christian belief. God forbid, they say, that the government should regulate our economic behavior, but it ought to regulate moral and religious belief. Again, the whole thrust of Jefferson's philosophy was to reject that position, to reject any idea that a shared community of religious beliefs or of moral values, other than the value of freedom itself, was necessary to society. He sought to raise the republic on the inalienable rights of man, allowing every citizen sovereignty over his own mind and conscience.

Jefferson has never been without critics with regard to his own religion as well as his politics. There are some (more in the past than today) who look upon him as an atheist or infidel, and therefore an aberration in the American scheme of things; they charge that he had a hidden agenda hostile to Christianity. And so it is said that the statute, instead of aiming at freedom of religion, actually sought to impose upon the people a new, infidel religion of the Enlightenment, a kind of secular humanism destructive of traditional moral and religious values. The University of Virginia, later founded on a purely secular basis, was widely denounced by clerics as a deistic enterprise of enormous proportions. Jefferson's own religion was a version of deism, but he was not therefore hostile to ordinary religious belief and profession. As a modern philosopher, Herbert Schneider, has said, "The power and eloquence of Jefferson's writing on religious freedom is due largely to his evident religious devotion." Unlike the anticlericalism of the Old World, Jefferson's hatred of priesthoods and establishments did not involve him in hatred of religion. He wished for himself, and for his countrymen, not freedom from religion but freedom to pursue religious truth wherever reason and conscience led, and the more earnest and upright the pursuit, the more respect it won from him. Jefferson's own pursuit had led him in his youth to a form of natural religion, and in his later years he adopted the moral teachings of Jesus as his creed while continuing to reject biblical revelation -- without which, in the eyes of most believers, he could not be considered a real Christian. No matter. He said he was a sect of one. At all times he tried to keep his religious convictions to himself, as he believed everyone was entitled to do; regrettably, his political foes declined to cooperate and, especially in the presidential election of 1800, made a great issue of his supposed infidelity.

The burden of Jefferson's work was on the side of tearing down, and so it was charged that he laid the ax to the pillars of the established church but raised nothing in its place. In fact the substitute was already at hand in what was called the "voluntary system," entirely in keeping with the religious pluralism of the country. The system had proved itself in Pennsylvania. There churches of many denominations flourished with only the voluntary support of their members, and unparalleled harmony prevailed amid the widest diversity. "They have made the happy discovery," Jefferson observed, "that the way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them." Another part of the experiment, at least for Jefferson, was broad-based public education. His Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, drafted at the same time as the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, provided for a comprehensive system of public education, from primary schools through a state university. The parish church would be replaced by the local schoolhouse as the main moral and educational force in the community. And the citizens, instead of paying taxes to support churches, would be taxed to support public schools. Unfortunately, this constructive part of Jefferson's reform program met with defeat in Virginia.

The Statute for Religious Freedom became a model for other American states old and new; moreover, its principles entered into the United States Constitution by way of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, for which we are largely indebted to Jefferson's great collaborator, James Madison: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." As President of the United States, Jefferson in 1802 put a gloss on the clause which was destined to have far-reaching influence. Writing to a committee of Baptists in Connecticut, he said,

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 [emphasis added].

At that time, and until 1940, the First Amendment, along with all the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, was held to be a restraint only on the national government. And so it rarely came into play, since most matters touching religion, or speech and press, belonged to the sphere of the state governments. But beginning in 1940 the Supreme Court made the guarantees of the First Amendment, and ultimately of the Bill of Rights as a whole, applicable to the states. The justices on the bench and the advocates at the bar were much influenced in their understanding of the "free exercise" clause by their understanding of the Virginia statute and the circumstances that had produced it. As one of them, Justice Wiley Rutledge, said, "The great instruments of the Virginia struggle . . . became the warp and woof of our constitutional tradition." The justices also picked up Jefferson's metaphor of "a wall of separation." Plain and simple though it might seem, the metaphor was not easily applied to the many cases that now came before the Supreme Court. Justice Robert H. Jackson once remarked that the "wall of separation" described by the Court was beginning to look like one of Jefferson's serpentine garden walls at the University of Virginia.

The progress of Jefferson's twin principles, of religious freedom and separation of Church and State, in Virginia s fellow states is another story. Certain milestones may quickly be noted. South Carolina abandoned its experiment with a plural establishment in 1790. Connecticut terminated tax support for parish churches with its constitution in 1818. And Massachusetts, the original Puritan commonwealth, the home of orthodox Congregationalism, expunged the last vestige of state-supported religion from the United States in 1833.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled in the United States at that time, was astounded by the coexistence of what he called "the spirit of liberty" and "the spirit of religion" in this country. In Europe, where joined, they were antagonists; in America both flourished although they were completely separate. Amazing! Twenty years later Philip Schaff, a German theologian, studied the matter and concluded as follows: "The vitality of religion [in America] is owing to its self-reliance, its freedom, and its abstention from politics. The voluntary system develops individual activity and liberality in the support of religion, while the state-church system has the opposite effect." Thus the universal opinion at the time of the American Revolution -- that, in Jefferson's words, "civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the Christian religion would perish if not supported" -- had been repudiated and replaced by a great new truth.

Appropriately, words from the Virginia statute are among those that grace the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, and its great dome is encircled by his personal oath: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Nowhere in the world today is there more genuine freedom of conscience, and more respect for the separateness of Church and State, than in the United States. It is a precious legacy. Nevertheless there are powerful voices in the land which would rewrite history and undermine these revolutionary principles. More-subtle dangers lurk in adjudications by the courts. One particular Supreme Court ruling in 1990, the so-called Peyote Case, which upheld civil sanctions against the use of peyote in the worship rituals of Native Americans, led Congress three years later to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, mandating a return to high standards of state nonintervention. President Bill Clinton, on signing the act into law, remarked on the "majestic quality" of this reaffirmation of a two-centuries-old faith in the principles of religious freedom and separation of Church and State. Thomas Jefferson's contribution to this long tradition was fundamental, as he must have believed it would be when he inscribed "Author. . .of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom" in his epitaph.


Copyright © 1994 by Merrill D. Peterson. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1994; Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom; Volume 274, No. 6; pages 112 - 124.

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