V&V Q&A: On Jefferson, Deism, and Church-State Separation (with Dr. Gary Scott Smith)

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In this latest edition, Dr. Paul Kengor, the executive director of the Center for Vision & Values, interviews Dr. Gary Scott Smith, Grove City College professor, an expert on faith and the presidency, and a contributor to the upcoming April 10-11 conference, “Church & State in 2008,” to be held on the campus of Grove City College. His most recent work is the acclaimed, Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush, published by Oxford University Press.

V&V: Dr. Smith, you will be kicking off our fourth annual conference, “Church & State in 2008,” with a talk on Thomas Jefferson and the issue of church-state separation. We can’t think of a better place to start our conference. Let’s get right to the core of the question: What did Thomas Jefferson mean by “separation of church and state,” assuming he used those words?

Dr. Gary Scott Smith: He did use those words. In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson argued that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State.” As president, he was bound to respect “this expression of the will of the nation in behalf of the right of conscience.” Jefferson used this letter to explain why he refused, unlike the first two presidents and almost all state governors, to declare days for public prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. The Virginian contended that the First Amendment prohibited the federal chief magistrate from issuing religious proclamations of any kind. Jefferson later contended that because the Constitution did not give the federal government explicit power to prescribe any religious exercises or assume any authority in religious matters, these powers must rest with the states. However, he thought it was proper for state and local governments to designate days of prayer and thanksgiving.

V&V: Is this phrase in the U.S. Constitution?

Smith: No. The First Amendment simply prohibits Congress from establishing a national church or preventing individuals from worshipping as they desire.

If the phrase is not in the Constitution, how and where does it become (for some) such a bulwark of this nation’s legal language and philosophy?

Smith: Justice Hugo L. Black used Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1947. “In the words of Jefferson,” wrote Black, the First Amendment “clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approach the slightest breach.” For the last 60 years, Justice Black’s perspective has dominated political and legal discourse. Strict separationists have used Jefferson’s metaphor to argue for a secular society in which religious symbols and principles are systematically removed from public life.

V&V: What was Jefferson’s personal religious faith?

Smith: Jefferson’s faith is not easy to categorize. Although he was an Episcopalian, he espoused a religion based on reason rather than revelation or mystical experience. He rejected miracles and argued that theologians had corrupted Christ’s original teachings. Jefferson believed that God was all-powerful, wise, just, and benevolent and that he providentially directed human affairs. He believed that one God, not a Trinity, had created the world and people. To Jefferson, the doctrine of the Trinity was incomprehensible, irrational, and ahistorical. He repudiated the Christian contention that Jesus was God’s unique Son and rejected the doctrines of Christ’s virgin birth, vicarious atonement, and bodily resurrection. Nevertheless, in his personal conduct and work as a statesman, Jefferson sought to follow Christ’s ethical teachings. The third president devised three summaries of biblical teaching, most notably The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, better known as the Jefferson Bible, in an effort to base Christianity on reason and remove all its supernatural elements and irrational dogmatism.

V&V: Does the “deist” label, which many scholars apply to Jefferson, actually fit? Is this widespread conviction primarily a result of poor scholarship or the intensely secular influence of contemporary academia?

Smith: These are complicated questions because Jefferson’s religious views were very eclectic. Jefferson sometimes called himself a deist, and many political opponents denounced him as a deist (as well as an atheist and an infidel), especially during the rancorous presidential campaign of 1800. Many leading historians, including Edwin Gaustad, Joseph Ellis, and Walter Isaacson, have also applied this label to him. However, Jefferson repudiated many key deist positions, including its contention that God was aloof, remote, and impersonal. The Virginian insisted instead that God actively sustained the universe, guided history, and heard and answered prayer.

Labeling Jefferson a Unitarian seems more accurate, with whom he shared many affinities. However, he insisted that he did not accept all their views and never publicly stated that he was a Unitarian. I think, therefore, that the term theistic rationalist best describes Jefferson. This belief system combines elements of natural religion, Christianity, and rationalism, with rationalism being the most important one. Because most deists denied God’s active involvement in the world, the efficacy of prayer, and the Bible as God’s revelation, the concept of theistic rationalism seems preferable to that of “Unitarian-deist” or “enlightened deist” in describing Jefferson and other Founders, including George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.

The secular worldview dominates today’s academy, and many scholars ignore or discount religious motivations and factors. I would not accuse them of poor scholarship on this particular issue because the definition of deism is contested and Jefferson’s religious convictions are very complex. However, I think Jefferson’s faith is widely misunderstood today, just as it was in his own day.

V&V: Do we today have the proper understanding of what was initially meant by Jefferson’s “separation” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists? Have secularists and some modern courts misused this concept?

Smith: I think we have misconstrued what Jefferson intended by his wall-of-separation metaphor. While serving in colonial and state government settings, Jefferson supported issuing religious proclamations. As president, he argued that the federal government could provide “friendly aids” to religious denominations. He allowed infant congregations to hold services in the Treasury and War office buildings and frequently attended these services. He signed a federal law that provided tax exemption for churches in the District of Columbia. Jefferson also approved using federal funds to support a Catholic missionary who worked with the Kaskaskia Indians in Illinois. Moreover, he extended three times a federal law that granted federal land to a United Brethren society to assist them in evangelizing Indians in the West. Thus, to use the words, “high,” “impregnable,” and “complete” to describe Jefferson’s wall is at odds with what he what he said and contradicts what he did.

Moreover, the First Congress, which devised the First Amendment, asked George Washington to designate “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” and appointed chaplains to the Senate and House who were paid with public funds. Washington and Adams appointed other days for religious observances, as has almost every president. Therefore, Jefferson’s refusal to designate such days is a radical departure from the practice of other chief executives.

Critics correctly complain that Jefferson’s trope has been elevated to a Constitutional principle that tends to create an adversarial relationship between religious bodies and the government and to silence religious voices in the marketplace of ideas. Whereas Jefferson’s wall explicitly separated the church as an institution from the federal government, Black’s “high and impregnable” wall separates religion from all levels of civil government. Properly understood, the separation of church and state requires, in the words of legal scholar Robert Cord, “only that government not pursue sectarian goals, not establish a religion, and not prefer one religion or religious point of view over others.”

V&V: Dr. Smith, we look forward to hearing your talk at the conference.

Smith: Thank you.