Tag Archives: Religious freedom

Such a level-headed clergyman is rare! And appreciated!

the restoration of the rights of conscience to two thirds of the citizens of Virginia in the beginning of the revolution [the disestablishment of state church in 1786], has merited to those who had agency in it, the everlasting hostility of such of the clergy as have a hankering after the union of church & state. the right of political opinion is as sacred as that of religious, and altho’ a man’s political opinions ought to have influence in confiding political trusts, they should no more affect the state of society than his religious opinions.
To Daniel D’Oyley, August 15, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders oppose religious control but not religious influence.
South Carolinian D’Oyley forwarded to the President a July 4th address by a Baptist pastor in Charleston. That clergyman supported the revolution a quarter century before and the current administration’s efforts to safeguard the nation’s republican principles, especially the separation of church and state. Such reasoned support from the clergy was rare.

Jefferson harkened back to his successful effort in the 1780s to break the official tie between the Anglican church and Virginia’s government. Those who supported that effort bore the wrath of the clergy whose favored position was eliminated.

Both political and religious rights were sacred and should be acted upon, but one was not superior to the other.

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Religion is none of our business.

In matters of Religion, I have considered that it’s free exercise is placed by the constitution independant of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it: but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction & discipline of the state or church authorities acknoleged by the several religious societies.
Second Inaugural Address, March 5, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect firm boundaries on their authority.
Jefferson reiterated a familiar theme, that the Constitution prohibited the federal government’s involvement in religion, either to promote or inhibit its exercise. That authority was left to the states and the churches within them. For that reason, as President, he had proclaimed no national days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving.

Twenty years before, Jefferson’s ban on state involvement in religion was adopted in Virginia. He claimed that as one of three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered and had it recorded on his tombstone. He held that government authority extended only to an individual’s actions, not his thoughts or beliefs. That left religious practice entirely to the individual.

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Since I have to do it, I will make it count!

Averse to recieve addresses, yet unable to prevent them, I have generally endeavored to turn them to some account, by making them the occasion by way of answer, of sowing useful truths & principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.
To Levi Lincoln, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Astute leaders turn duties they don’t like into opportunities to teach.
Jefferson had just received on the same day a 700 pound cheese from the Cheshire Baptists of Massachusetts and an address (a written declaration, often stating a position or making a request) from the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut and New York. The latter protested that their religious practices were given as privileges, not rights, by their state government, whose official church was Congregational.

Jefferson’s reply has been embraced by opposing camps as support for their position on religion and government. It contained those famous words, “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson disliked addresses in general but felt duty-bound to respond. Thus, he would use the unwished-for task as a opportunity to “sow useful truths & principles among the people …” The point he wanted to make will be the subject of the next post.

The President included a draft of his response to the Danbury folks with this letter and asked Lincoln’s comments.

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Who cut the cheese?

I concur with you … that the constitution of the United States is a Charter of authorities and duties, not a Charter of rights to it’s officers; and that among it’s most precious provisions are the right of suffrage, the prohibition of religious tests, and it’s means of peaceable amendment. nothing ensures the duration of this fair fabric of government so effectually as the due sense entertained, by the body of our citizens, of the value of these principles, & their care to preserve them.
To the Committee of Cheshire, Massachusetts, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Astute leaders recognize the value of symbolism.
The President confirmed the assertons of Cheshire Baptists in their addresses to him, namely:
1. The Constitution confers duties on its officers, not rights.
2. Rights were conferred, instead, on the citizens. These included the right to vote, of freedom from a religious requirement, and to peacefully amend that Constitution.

What, more than anything else, protects the government and the rights it confers? It is the belief of its citizens that these rights are valuable and must be preserved.

What was the occasion of these high-minded remarks? It was the presentation by the Cheshire Baptists of a 1,200 pound cheese, four feet in dimater, descibed in a 2012 post. (Thus, the title of this post …)

The editors of the Thomas Jefferson letters provide a lengthy (!) explanation of the “mammoth cheese” and its symbolism. Buried in that account is that Jefferson, who wrote out his response, may have read it aloud to his gathered guests. If so, it would have been one of his very few public addresses. Jefferson dealt in written words, not spoken ones.

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Is Jesus Christ the author of our holy religion?

The bill for establishing religious freedom … was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Faithful leaders do not fear dissenting opinions.
The high water mark of Jefferson’s work revising Virginia’s statutes was his bill for religion freedom. Drafted by him and shephered through the legislature in 1786 by James Madison, it ended Anglican status as the “official” tax-supported church.

Virginia was settled by Englishmen loyal to the king and the Church of England. Several pages before this excerpt are these words, “ … the grant to Sr. Walter Raleigh contained an express Proviso that their laws “should not be against the true Christian faith, now professed in the church of England.” “ The state established Anglican parishes and provided support for their ministers.

Although 100% Anglican at its founding, by the time of the Revolution, “dissenters” (i.e. non-Anglicans, primarily Presbyterians) formed the majority of Virginia’s faith community. Even so, all residents were still taxed to support the Anglican cause.

In dis-establishing the official church, some sought to preserve the idea that religious freedom was extended to all Christians, rather than just those of Anglican persuasion. “A great majority” rejected that restriction, proof that the bill’s protection extended to all. Each person was free to worship however he saw fit, or not worship any deity at all, with neither help nor hindrance by the state.

Section 1 of this bill states “Almighty God hath created the mind free … [and did not force acceptance on his creation.]” If God did not require religious obedience, neither should the state.

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Did Jefferson oppose Islam?

This post features a departure from our usual form and begins with a reader’s question:
“There has been some talk lately about comments made by Mr. Jefferson concerning the muslems and their radical religious views.  It has been mentioned on TV by Fox News commentators, as well as Glenn Beck and others.  It is being discussed that Mr. Jefferson took a bold and strong position about their dangerous position to the world and the united states.  Supposedly, the muslems made threats to other countries.  France was supposedly one of them. Mr. Jefferson warned the world leaders to be cautious about the radical muslems.  Is that true?  Please comment.”

Patrick Lee’s Comment
This will be a challenge to compress into a short reply!
1. Jefferson authored a bill, adopted in the 1780s, to dis-establish the official state-supported church in Virginia. Decades later, he wrote in his Autobiography, “The bill for establishing religious freedom…  was meant to be universal … within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
2. Jefferson would have warned about the dangers posed by ANY radical person, group, denomination, authority, political party or government that wanted to impose its views, religious or otherwise, on others by force.
3. From the time Jefferson was Ambassador to France in the mid-1780s through the rest of his political career, he contended with the “Barbary pirates,” the North African states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers. Those states demanded annual tribute (bribes) from nations shipping in the Mediterranean, or they would capture their ships and hold their crew and cargo for ransom. Those North African states happened to be Muslim. He strongly opposed their actions, not their religion.
4. Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone cited a March 28, 1786 letter from John Adams and Jefferson to John Jay. (Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 1783-1789, Vol. 1, p. 604-5. I could not find the text.) They wrote that the Tripoli minister “…calmly asserted that it was the duty of his countrymen to make war on “sinners”.” (Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, p. 52) Read into that what you will.
5. You can make a strong case that Jefferson would oppose radical expressions of anything that would deny people their creator-endowed natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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