I grew up almost in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson. Home was a few miles away from Monticello, which is on the road we took to Charlottesville. I passed that gatehouse many a hundred times. I read about Jefferson and listened to stories about him. The family visited any number of times.
Later, I attended The University. His University. And there I read and heard more stories, and one summer in grad school, I lived six weeks with his letters as I wrote a major thesis about his educational theories and plans.
I grew up with great respect for the man and became strongly imbued with his thoughts about religion. They have formed the heart of my thinking about church and state. No question, he is the absolute guiding light and Founding Father of America’s ideas about religious freedom and religious tolerance.
This background explains why I get tongue-biting angry when he is so thoroughly ignored or misinterpreted by spokespeople on the Religious Far Right. Recently, Bryan Fischer stated in a radio broadcast that the Founding Fathers intended to protect the freedom of only the Christian faith in their “freedom of religion” writings. Former judge Roy Moore of Alabama said recently that Buddhists and others should have no protection under the First Amendment, as it applied only to Christians.
But are they right? No. Let’s look at some Jefferson quotation. First, “I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another” (my emphasis here and later). And second, “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and enforce their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faiths, undermine all our civil rights.” Add this: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.”
Note that he also defended the rights of agnostics and atheists, that is, “people of no faith.”
Let me close with two more lines from his quill, from Notes on the State of 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.”
Even earlier, when Virginia was about to adopt his Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, he wanted the name of Jesus excluded so that people would understand that document would cover by “the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
If that’s a defense of the exclusivity of the Christian faith, I’ll eat my hat.