Thomas Jefferson’s Final Word on Religion
In arguments about the separation of church and state in America the founder’s intentions are raised, usually to point out that they were religious, God fearing men, when in fact other influences were more important. They lived during The Enlightenment, The Age Of Reason. The philosophies of Voltaire and Rousseau and others and the discoveries of science influenced the men of Washington’s and Franklin’s generations profoundly. Those who led the revolution and later drafted the Constitution coldly evaluated the effect of religion on governments which led to the rejection of both religious dogma and the power of the established clergy. Overt rejection of God himself could have cost them dearly, so some, if not most, developed a limited belief system or they gave lip service, so their true belief, or at least their doubts, would be hidden.
As a self made, wealthy man who entered national politics during retirement, Benjamin Franklin was less vulnerable to political consequences than others. His objections to religion and particularly those related to associating religion with government were fairly well known. Jefferson was more circumspect. He did however use his last opportunity to address the country to express his feelings on the matter. Jefferson drafted a letter to the committee responsible for the fiftieth Independence Day activities. Of America’s celebration he wrote:
‘May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to some later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition have persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self government . . . . All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollection of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.’
By 1826 Jefferson had been out of office for many years. He knew he was near death and this letter would be his last opportunity to address a wide audience. He was a very careful writer. Given these facts it is fair to believe that this is his true, final position. Interpretation of his meaning must be very tight. His message is clear and his use of the words “monkish ignorance and superstition” is a concise summation. All who are aware of his accomplishments and respect his mind should accept these, some of his final words, as his final position on the issue.
The Constitution itself, a document almost completely without religious reference, is the ultimate testament to how Jefferson and the other delegates to the Convention regarded the subject of Church and State, but there are others. Resolution of how states would be represented in the new government was so difficult, Benjamin Franklin (of all people) suggested they pray for guidance, an idea that was quickly and roundly rejected. All the delegates against it realized only human intelligence could solve the problem, which became the essence of the establishment clause of the Constitution, and that is how it has been interpreted: government and religion must be kept separate. It is why in the twentieth century a court ruled if the government drafts a law requiring the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance be spoken by government employees engaged in government activity, it is making a law respecting religion and therefore it is affecting the establishment of religion. A practice the founders, men of The Enlightenment, wisely prohibited.