Visionary Jefferson’s view on the separation of religion & state

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, argued a school of thought in 1800 that by even today’s standard would be seen as fairly radical. He expressed a belief in the importance of the separation of religion and government. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists his most famous line was written, “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Jefferson’s election was a revolution.

Jefferson was clear that government should have no influence on personal religion and that religion should play no part in government. It is hard to know whether Jefferson’s views was due to his own unorthodox thoughts on religion as many historians have stated they believe he was a deist. He never declared himself as a deist but one thing is evident, he was a very logical thinker. He was very critical towards religion as he felt it could lead to tyrants as our leaders. A letter to his nephew was found highlighting this, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” That said he was supportive of the general morality provided in religion.

Secretary of state, James Madison was supportive of Jefferson’s beliefs which can be seen by some of his powerful statements. He wrote of “total separation of the church from the state. Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States. Practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” He expanded on this further, “We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them.”

Together with Jefferson, they carried out successful campaigns to prevent financial support to churches in Virginia, this led to many critics arguing he should not hold office due to his “unorthodox religious beliefs.”

One of the difficulties with this philosophy today is that the U.S. value religion very highly in comparison to other developed countries. 65% of Americans see religion as important in their daily lives compared to 24% for Japanese, 17% for Swedes and 19% for Danes. There are a number of reasons for this, one being the high immigrant population. Immigrant groups tend to be more isolated so they remain religious in order to battle this. Also, the U.S. in comparison to places in Europe has a higher crime rate and a lower life expectancy which leads to a dependence on religion. There is a correlation to insecurity in life such as difficult living conditions with an increase in religious values. This in itself is a fantastic reason for separating religion and the state.

“A wall of separation between church and state,” is a very bold statement. In practical terms its means government is not allowed to make laws that favour a particular religion as it can’t make laws on a religion’s beliefs. That means, people could pray in school, but they can’t force children to pray. It is a fascinating way of thinking and religious leaders should also embrace this thought. Yes, it keeps religion out of government but it also keeps the government out of religion. Both are protected from one another.

Famous philosopher John Locke argues the idea of separation is important for tolerance. As human beings can lack tolerance for each other, issues with religion and politics can occur. Benjamin Constant was another key thinker who used France in the early 19th century as an example.“More acute in modern societies like France because they fostered political fanaticism and individual isolation. Religion cannot serve as a basis for morals, and the more insulated from politics, the better.” Religious sentiment is another key focus for Constant. He was able to argue that a lot of religion is about feelings and therefore it should not have any connection to important political issues.

Jefferson’s view was that countries should not be assigned to a particular religion, for example “the U.S. is not a Christian country.” He believed that there should be an environment where everyone can express whatever beliefs they have and the best way to do this was to separate the state and the church. One of the reasons he believed in this was that he didn’t believe a government influenced by religious leaders has the capacity to ensure freedom for all. In 1814, Jefferson wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” Today in 2019, there is much we can still learn from Jefferson. There are many on the Christian far-right who want to break down this wall of separation in the U.S. which in actual fact is dangerous to themselves. Without the separation of church and state, the government can’t protect the right for people to practice their faith freely. However, it is plausible that the small minority may not believe in the freedom of religion and instead want a Christian nation and have no intolerance to others. Those are people who do not actually support the constitution and the very basis of how the U.S. was founded. The First Amendment with the Establishment cause, shows that the main job of the government is to protect a free society, not a particular religion. We can look at the regions in the Middle East and Asia where this approach has caused a never ending circle of war and conflict. This is why I think Jefferson was an iconic visionary, he explained to the world what happens when you don’t separate religion and the state. As we continue to seek world peace instead of war and conflict, maybe the start of the answer has been here for the past 200 years.

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