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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221

Eschewing Obfuscation

The Sage of Monticello
written by Charles Sumner

published in the June 18th edition of the Nashville Free Press

We owe a lot to Thomas Jefferson, "The Sage of Monticello." He was a man for all seasons: inventor, philosopher, statesman, horticulturist, architect, archaeologist. He was fiercely attacked because of his unorthodoxy in religion by political opponents when he ran for President in 1800. Jefferson certainly was no saint, but the sermons which warned that he would overthrow religion and destroy the Bible were (to say the least) exaggerated. There really was no reason for New Englanders to hide their Bibles when he became President.

Thomas Jefferson was not an atheist. His religion was more in the image of the basic tenets of Renaissance Humanism, which considered man empowered, limitless in his capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. His admiration for the life and teaching of Jesus is well-documented. He wrote that his "system of morals is the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." However, he thought it necessary "to knock down the mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods by which the religion-builders have distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus and get back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated." He believed himself to be "a Christian in the only sense in which Christ wished any one to be, sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others."

Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, called Jefferson's faith "the religion of a reasonable man." And another student of his life, Merrill Peterson, said that Jefferson "wished for himself, for all his countrymen, not freedom from religion, but freedom to pursue religion wherever reason and conscience led." He and his family were baptized, married amd buried by the Anglican Church, and he was always on good terms with the local minister. He also donated money to both Presbyterian and Baptist churches and in later years he rode his horse into Charlottesville to attend joint services of three Protestant denominations. Yet he did not believe in the Trinity.

The reason for understanding Jefferson's religious views is that it is helpful in understanding his intense belief that the institutions of religion and of government must remain separate and free in order to guarantee freedom of conscience and equal treatment before the law for all. Hence, Jefferson's "Wall of Separation."

The Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature. Their letter expressed concern over the lack in their state constitution of explicit protection of religious liberty, and against a government establishment of religion.

In their 1801 letter to President Jefferson, the Danbury Baptists affirmed that "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty - That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals - That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor..."

As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might "reproach their chief Magistrate... because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ," thus establishing a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities. So we will see how these concerns were treated by Jefferson.

Why Do We Need a Progressive Newspaper?
published in the September 3rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Jefferson's "Wall of Separation"
published in the August 6th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Sage of Monticello
published in the June 18th edition of the Nashville Free Press

The Enlightenment and Deism
published in the June 4th edition of the Nashville Free Press

America as a "Religious Refuge"
published in the May 7th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Conflicts over Religion and Government
published in the April 23rd edition of the Nashville Free Press

Roger Williams - Freedom's Forgotten Hero
published in the April 9th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty in Colonial America
published in the March 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Religious Liberty Requires Government Neutrality
published in the February 26th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday
published in the February 12th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Is Posting the Ten Commandments Moral or Immoral?
published in the January 29th edition of the Nashville Free Press

Three-Minute Introduction to Separation of Church and State
published in the January 15th edition of the Nashville Free Press