The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Religion, God, Church and State

Before even beginning a discussion of this important topic, it would be well to come to an understanding on terms. Partisans on these issues frequently blur the distinction between God, Religion and Church, thus reading intention into the words of the Founding Fathers that was not there originally. They often use church and religion interchangeably, and consider any reference to God as an endorsement of every sense of the other terms. Thus, when one author asks, "Was the First Amendment really intended to build a 'wall of separation' between the church and state?" and then answers in the negative with, "The Founding Fathers wanted to protect religion from federal government interference, not diminish its influence in our public life," (1) he is ignoring the two senses in which the term religion is used and equating both to the church, an error explained in greater detail below. The same author goes on to quote Benjamin Franklin and his belief in God as proof that the Founders were religious men, thereby linking all three terms -- God, religion, and church -- in such a way that any statement by the Founders about one can be used as an affirmation of and support for all senses of the others. In this way, the true meaning of the Founders and of the First Amendment becomes completely distorted, and partisans can then use the Founders' statements to support their sectarian agenda.

"God" refers to the Creator, "the Author of nature," the Almighty. This term was used by Jefferson, and apparently understood by all the Founders, to be a general reference to the Supreme Being, and not meant to refer to the God of a specific religion or church. Jefferson makes a big point of this difference when the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was debated.

    "[When] the [Virginia] bill for establishing religious freedom... was finally passed,... a singular proposition proved that its 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 its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.

It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that because the Founders made frequent references to God and because the Declaration of Independence says "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator..." that therefore this nation was in some way founded on the Christian religion, or that church doctrine has any legitimate place in determining public policy. It is true that they frequently compared the general principles of this nation to the general principles of Christianity. Both reflect a philosophy that shows others the equal respect that we feel entitled to for ourself, as taught in the Golden Rule. And the Founders ascribed to God the creation of our inalienable rights as intrinsic to our nature, proposing that these equal rights were ordained by God.

    "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?" --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.

But this was merely a recognition that our liberties are as much a part of human nature as, for example, flight is a part of eagle nature. The Founders recognized God as the ultimate source of reality, and took that as the foundation for a reasoned view of existence in this world. They were religious men, but this religion was no mere cloak of sectarian dogma; it was an intrinsic part of their philosophical thought. In fact, the source of their political ideas was not the Bible, but Sidney, Locke, Montesquieu, and others. The guiding principles of our republic are "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These principles, the cornerstone of our Declaration of Independence, are not the tenets of any sacred book.

The term "Religion," on the other hand, refers to the set of beliefs that men hold regarding God and transcendent things. It is used in two ways: referring to the general beliefs that men have regarding God, the Creator, the Author of Nature; and referring to the specific, sectarian beliefs that any given man or group of men may hold, which are derived from the teachings of a particular church. Thus, in the passage above, God as "the holy author of our religion," refers to religion in a generic sense, i.e., to that of "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination." At the same time, the document it is taken from, the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, is a bill for assuring freedom to each specific religion of whatever type it may be.

"Church," however, always refers to a specific, organized religion, with its buildings, clergy, beliefs, rituals and other practices. It is the institution that is often a threat to liberty because it seeks an alliance with the State, as when Jefferson noted:

    "This doctrine ["that the condition of man cannot be ameliorated, that what has been must ever be, and that to secure ourselves where we are we must tread with awful reverence in the footsteps of our fathers"] is the genuine fruit of the alliance between Church and State, the tenants of which finding themselves but too well in their present condition, oppose all advances which might unmask their usurpations and monopolies of honors, wealth and power, and fear every change as endangering the comforts they now hold." --Thomas Jefferson: Report for Univ. of Va., 1818.

It was Jefferson's (and the Founding Father's) belief that those things peculiar to a particular institution of religion, i.e., a church, should be entirely separate from the State.

    "Believing 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." --Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, 1802.

This separation was not just a protection for religion from the state; it was a protection of the American people from having any church impose its religious beliefs, opinions and/or practices on them through the power and agency of the State. In other words, it protects every citizen from state-sponsored, state-imposed religion of any kind. It also meant that no person was to be discriminated against by the State because he was a member of any particular church or held any particular religious opinion.

    "We have no right to prejudice another in his civil enjoyments because he is of another church." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776.

Religious use and practice was not to be the criteria for determining what is or is not lawful.

    "Whatsoever is lawful in the Commonwealth or permitted to the subject in the ordinary way cannot be forbidden to him for religious uses; and whatsoever is prejudicial to the Commonwealth in their ordinary uses and, therefore, prohibited by the laws, ought not to be permitted to churches in their sacred rites." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776.

The religious dogmas of specific, sectarian churches should not enter into the public discussion of issues that affect the whole of society.

    "Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Fishback, 1809.

In this passage, Jefferson ably and precisely draws the line designating those aspects of religious thought that properly form the foundation for the formation of public policy: Those issues where all religions agree. Those where they all disagree are fine for discussion amongst and adherence by church members, but they have no place as influence upon public policy. What this means in a practical sense is that our government is to be based on reason and the search for truth. Faith, revelation and church dogma cannot be a factor, because as soon as those elements enter, they lead to division and discord. Every man has a different opinion, and there is no way of resolving those differences. Once we abandon reason and truth as our guide, we head for disaster.

    "Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Smith, 1822.

Religious opinion, like every other opinion, is a personal matter. Every person is free to maintain his own religious opinions, but he has no right whatsoever to force them on anyone else. Much less can the state incorporate such opinion into public policy and compel any citizen to adhere to the beliefs, opinions or practices of any church or religion.

    The Intrusion of Religious Dogma Into National Affairs

Apparently, for many religious people, it is not enough that they have freedom of religion and are able to conduct their lives in accordance with their own beliefs, free from interference from others. Holding strong religious beliefs in certain areas, they wish to see those beliefs imposed on all other citizens as well, and to interfere in the lives of others to an extent that they would not countenance in their own lives.

Thus, we see the attempt to impose dogmatic positions with respect to abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, homosexuality, prayer in public schools, the teaching of Creationism and even the teaching of the Christian religion in public schools. On all these issues, these religious people are not complaining because they are forbidden to follow their own beliefs on these matters. No one is forcing them to have abortions, or doctor-assisted suicides, to practice homosexuality or to renounce Creationism. No one is preventing them from saying private prayers, or from studying the Christian religion. Their own lack of religious freedom is not their complaint. They want all those things to be practiced by persons of other faiths as well.

Almost all religions assume that their's is the true faith and everyone else is in error. It is quite natural, therefore, to extend this so that error (other people's religion) is suppressed and truth (their religion) reigns over all. But this is the attempt to impose a uniformity of belief that has been responsible for so much murder and mayhem down through the ages.

    "Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.

It is this same spirit of intolerance of the beliefs of others, this same wish to impose religious practices on others, that has been responsible for the bombings and killings in the Mid-East and in Northern Ireland, as well as in many other parts of the world today. Sectarian religious belief is always divisive because it is based on faith, not on reason. Faith is sufficient for private life and decisions, but public life can only be based on reason, and policy based on faith could only be imposed by force on those who do not adhere to the faith.

    "In a republican nation... citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force." --Thomas Jefferson to D. Harding, 1824.

We have seen the divisive effect that sectarian religious influence has had on the Republican party. By forcing that party into platform positions that have their ultimate foundation solely in religious belief, that religious influence is splitting the Republican party apart. If the Republicans want to win the support of all the American people, they should stand firm, draw a line and say that they cannot allow sectarian religious beliefs to dictate national policy. If they fail to do this, that sectarian religious influence will weaken and cause divisions in the party, just as it has everywhere else in the world and throughout history. This nation was founded on the principle of separation of church and state, and violations of that principle will cause endless trouble in any nation where it occurs.

There is no doubt that the separation of church and state has been mistakenly overdone in certain particular instances. Some school administrators have gone too far when they prevent students from privately saying grace at meals, or prevent groups of students from forming religious clubs and holding meetings on school property like any other club. But such excesses should not distract us from the proper course to follow, which is to have all governmental agencies refrain from sponsoring any kind of sectarian religious activities or to allow such sectarian influence to determine public policy for us all.


(1) The Theme is Freedom, by M. Stanton Evans.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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