Skip to main content

Thomas Jefferson on the role of religion in politics

  • Author:
  • Updated:

By Ben Cohen

Last Sunday, I wrote a post in response to a reader who had commented negatively on my assertion that most Americans felt Dick Cheney should be impeached. Claiming that I had 'lost all credibility' on the subject, and that Democrats were all 'socialists and closet communists' that want to create a 'Stalinist type regime', the reader also made the bold claim that the United States was founded on 'Christian principles'. It appears I was not the only one who took exception to the readers comments, and other readers of The Daily Banter promptly joined in the argument.

Here's an interesting comment from Buckler, who quotes one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson:

"As for America being founded on Christian principles, perhaps we should look at a few quotes from Thomas Jefferson, arguably one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers. These are just a few, extracted from a collection of many, many more:

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.
-- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82 (capitalization of the word god is retained per original; see Positive Atheism's Historical Section)

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious
worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced,
restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall
otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but
that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain,
their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no
wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

-- Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779),
quoted from Merrill D Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (1984),
p. 347

I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or
admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.

-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

The 'Wall of Separation,' Again:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of
every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual.
State churches that use government power to support themselves and
force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil
rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy
unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion.
Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore,
is absolutely essential in a free society.

     We have solved ... the great and interesting question whether
freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and
obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the
comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and
openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own
reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

-- Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808). This is his
second use of the term "wall of separation," here quoting his own use
in the Danbury Baptist letter. This wording was several times upheld by
the Supreme Court as an accurate description of the Establishment
Clause: Reynolds (98 US at 164, 1879); Everson (330 US at 59, 1947);
McCollum (333 US at 232, 1948)"

A graduate in Politics and International Relations from the
University of Sussex, Ben Cohen is a boxing journalist for and Boxing Monthly. He is the founding Editor of The
Daily Banter.