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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
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Eschewing Obfuscation

The Enlightenment and Deism
written by Charles Sumner

published in the June 4th edition of the Nashville Free Press

James I, King of England, told Parliament in 1614: "Monarchy is the greatest thing on earth. Kings are rightly called gods since just like God they have power of life and death over all their subjects in all things. They are accountable to God only ... so it is a crime for anyone to argue about what a king can do."

Contrast that thought, called "the divine right of kings," with the statement in the Declaration of Independence which states that "governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The Declaration goes on to say, "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states." So the world was turned upside down.

The primary author of those words was a deist named Thomas Jefferson. The Religious Right today rely upon the Declaration to support their false theory that this nation was founded as a Christian nation. They have to grasp at this because the United States Constitution has no mention of God. Yet it is the Constitution which is the basis of our government, not the Declaration of Independence. The straws at which they grasp are these: "the laws of nature and of nature's God;" "endowed by their Creator;" "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world;" "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."

These are deist thoughts coming from Jefferson. It is difficult to define someone's personal religion. What is a Christian? Is it a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox Catholic, Eastern Rite, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, or which of over a dozen Baptist groups? But Jefferson was certainly not an orthodox Christian. The phrases used have some appeal to religious people because they acknowledge a supreme being, but they do not in any way make this a Christian nation. Jefferson did regard the teachings of Jesus as among the noble.

Deism developed naturally from the Enlightenment notion that God and nature are one. Thus, God can be perceived through the workings of natural law. However, once God created the universe, he no longer intervened in human affairs. Hence, the doubting of miracles or other stories of the Bible where God plays a role in human affairs. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were known deists. George Washington and John Adams had deistic tendencies. In 1831, Episcopalian minister Bird Wilson lamented: "Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than Unitarianism." Whence came this philosophy?

The Enlightenment blew through the 18th Century like a fresh breeze, on the heels of such thinkers as Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, and in a climate of increasing disaffection with repressive rule. Enlightenment thinkers helped create the intellectual framework for the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. Two who particularly influenced America�s new government were the Baron de Montesquieu, who advocated separation of powers, and John Locke, who believed that human nature was characterized by reason and tolerance. Locke thus was a strong advocate for limited government, which included keeping government out of the affairs of religion.

In his 1689 Letter on Toleration to a close friend, Locke argued that "the power of civil government relates only to men's civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come." Scholars credit Locke with significantly influencing the content of the Declaration of Independence.

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