Jefferson was a long time supporter of religious freedom. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) he wrote:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Even earlier, in 1777, he had drafted a bill to establish religious freedom in Virginia. The key paragraph stated: “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
During the election of 1800 candidates were to be Constitutionally free of having religious tests imposed upon them as a prequalification for public office. The Framers believed that anything less constituted harassment and was of such a personal nature that it was not in the best interests of the country. Article VI, section 3, clearly stated that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
There were many were not yet ready to concede that it was unlawful to put candidates running for public office under the scrutiny of litmus tests over matters of “faith.” Trashing a candidate’s particular set of beliefs or nonbeliefs in an effort to alter the outcome of the election, was freely used, by religious leaders sympathetic to the Federalist Party.
Eugene Sheridan, in his introduction to Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, noted.
The Federalist Party and their ministerial allies arraigned Jefferson before the bar of public opinion as an unbeliever who was unworthy to serve as chief magistrate of a Christian nation.
THe president of Yale University,Pastor Timothy Dwight, was a prime example of those detractors. During the campaign Dwight took advantage of his pulpit to rain fire and brimstone on Jefferson. He said,
Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt that, if Jefferson is elected, those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin, which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence, defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon? For what end? That our churches may become temples of reason, the Bible cast into a bonfire, and that we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution?
The Gazette of the United States, the main paper of the Federalist Party, urged voters to lay their hands on their hearts and ask themselves:
Shall I continue in allegiance to God, and a religious president, or impiously declare for Jefferson and no God!
However Unitarian John Adams, the outgoing Federalist president, had once castigated the idea of Christ’s divinity as an “awful blasphemy.” Adams was raised a Congregationalist, but ultimately rejected many fundamental doctrines of conventional Christianity, such as the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, becoming a Unitarian. In his youth, Adams' father urged him to become a minister, but Adams refused, considering the practice of law to be a more noble calling. Although he once referred to himself as a "church going animal," Adams' view of religion overall was rather ambivalent: He recognized the abuses, large and small, that religious belief lends itself to, but he also believed that religion could be a force for good in individual lives and in society at large. His extensive reading (especially in the classics), led him to believe that this view applied not only to Christianity, but to all religions. Yet It was Jefferson who was accused of being an infidel unworthy of the office. For some, to vote for Jefferson was to sin against God and be forever lost! Using the “God” card, along with rumor and innuendo, was justified by the Federalists if it kept Jefferson out of office.
As Jefferson historian Willard Randall puts it, no presidential campaign
has more brutally combined these tactics of rumor and innuendo, than the 1800 campaign, which left Jefferson stunned and the country deeply divided for years.
Jefferson perceived in these tactics a critical threat to the Constitution. Partisan squabbles that led to the development of two rival political parties was one thing. But to let Puritans control elective outcomes through the use of religious tests and the use of the Federalist Party as its mouthpiece was another. It was not only a questionable violation of Article VI, section 3, of the Constitution, but it sanctioned a return to the Calvinist model of encouraging the clerical supervision of the the process for religious, cultural, and legislative purposes.
In his first inaugural address President Thomas Jefferson reflected on the need for Americans to be vigilant in preserving freedom of religious and political expression. Americans had gained little, he said, if, after
“having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered . . . we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.” Then, speaking directly to the Federalists and their Puritan allies, he said: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated and where reason is left free to combat it.”
For Jefferson, this was the best check against those who likely at some time in the nation’s history would interpret the new Constitution in a manner that favored their own religion at the expense of the people’s choice for religious pluralism and democracy.
Jefferson’s religious growth, combined with his experience in establishing religious freedom in Virginia, seemed to make him more keenly aware that a hostility continued to flourish against the idea of religious freedom, even among the ruling class.
In a letter to Jefferson dated August 22, 1800, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote that he had
“always considered Christianity as the strong ground of Republicanism.” He then suggested that it was “necessary for Republicanism to ally itself to the Christian religion [in order] to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world.”
Appalled that his physician friend would equate Christianity with Republicanism and advocate an unholy alliance between church and state—with the motive of overthrowing religious and political institutions whose practices Dr. Rush disagreed with. Jefferson responded by reminding him that such an alliance already existed in America and was working its ill effects on the Constitution and its citizens. Jefferson responded to Dr. Rush on Sept. 23, 1800. Jefferson pointed out that the opposition he was receiving involved the joint efforts of Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party, and specific New England clerics who fostered a “very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.” This led to pamphlets accused Jefferson of being unfit to become President because he did not hold Christian beliefs. Jefferson added, in the same letter,
The clergy ... believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.
Dumas Malone, a biographer of Jefferson, points out that
the long-lived conflict which the dominant clergy of that region waged against this apostle of religious freedom” continued because Jefferson refused to disclose his personal religious views in a manner that satisfied their insatiable appetite for religious and political power, and because he believed that his religious views were an entirely private matter.
To many clerics, the idea that American citizens were free to worship or not worship, and to hold views in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences, remained unacceptable and bordered on blasphemy! So during the election of 1800 the Puritan ideals of the past rose up in seeming desperation to challenge the new egalitarian age of enlightenment, tolerance, and freedom of conscience. Here, the most sacred values of the past—faith, family, community, and the rule of law—were about to merge with secular and liberal notions of individualism. But not without a fight from a clergy used to authoritarian control.
In the new democratic republic, Jefferson understood that the Constitution had to be entrusted with the people and not just with theologians who might claim to speak on behalf of God. Indeed, America’s constitutional experiment was founded on “We the people,” and not on God’s expressed authority. This is the fundamental difference between the Puritan and Constitutional foundings. That is why the Constitution remains the fundamental obstacle to the past present and future success of the Religious Right.
Strange how the current election season promises a similar situation between those promoting their entire country and those promoting their own unenlightened self interest. Tocqueville carefully distinguished between the "self-interest properly understood" he found in America and "unenlightened self-interest". To begin with the negative, unenlightened self-interest comes closest to our common definition of selfishness. It is that which seeks advantage for the self at the expense of others. It is directed by brute instinct alone. On the other hand, self-interest properly understood poses the rhetorical question of "whether it is not to the individual advantage of each to work for the good of all." This is not an instinctive attitude but a learned behavior, running (at least initially) counter to the instinct towards seeking self-advantage. Through exercise of this virtue, the individual agrees to connect his quest for self-advantage with the same instinct in others. Thus it is learned that "virtue is useful". Education becomes a most necessary tool for the restraint of unenlightened self-interest.
The following passage from Democracy in America sums up the attitude fostered by our Founding Fathers towards the concept of enlightened self-interest:
The Americans, on the contrary, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.
Such an attitude once made America great. Enlightened self interest properly understood built us up and unenlightened self interest is now tearing us down. The conservative "Christians" of 1800 were on the wrong side seeking political power against the expressed desire for religious freedom so clear in the Constitution and the Deistic attitude of our Founders. Apparently Jesus was a magic super hero warrior figure to them guaranteed to hate whoever the clergy preached against, not a simple philosopher promoting universal love of all mankind. I suppose that churches of 1800 were much like the endless number of TV preachers today. They read in Paul's part of the New Testament, then zap back to an Old Testament reading, keeping fear at the forefront. Never looking at or considering the actual words of Jesus. Jefferson regarded the New Testament to be the product of both an inferior mind and a superior mind. He described how he dealt with the New Testament in a letter to John Adams.
We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select even from the very words of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led by forgetting often or not understanding what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, October 13, 1813
Deists tend to respond well to the actual words of Jesus although rejecting Christian orthodoxy. Many like Jefferson and Paine regard Jesus as a fellow Deist and rational thinker and tried to practice the Golden Rule. What is clear to me is that our Founding Fathers knew and acted on the words of Jesus and would be in conflict with any believers attempting to destroy the Constitution as the tea party crazies are today.