Jefferson’s Robust Views of Religious Freedom

Public Discourse

17 December, 2012

Brian Walsh, T.J. Whittle,  and Garrett Bauman within Religion and the Public Square

Notwithstanding his unorthodox views of Christianity, Thomas Jefferson staunchly adhered to the rights of all religious believers, Christian and non-Christian alike, to free religious exercise.

Thomas Jefferson called the holidays the season of “greatest mirth and jollity,” but as Americans gather with friends and family this month, recent threats to religious liberty might dampen some of their holiday cheer. Fortunately, Jefferson’s thought also can give hope and encouragement to supporters of religious freedom. After a wearisome election year fraught with animosity and threats to religious freedom, it behooves us to reconsider Jefferson’s advocacy for religious liberty as a cornerstone of our fundamental rights.

Jefferson held deeply conflicted (some would say hostile) views of the religious beliefs of most of his fellow citizens. Despite this, he was devoted to the liberties of all religious believers. Examining his reasons for this might help even those who share his skepticism toward traditional, organized religion to appreciate the case for defending America’s historically broad protections for the free exercise of religion. Jefferson advocated religious freedom not out of any strict pious devotion, but out of his insights into human nature and the nature of good government. These include the view that religious pluralism in tandem with the exercise of enlightened reason is foundational to a well-ordered society.

But it is imperative to distinguish the long-simmering contention and disagreement over Jefferson’s beliefs on religion from his clear public support for religious liberty. When it came to religious freedom and rights of conscience, Jefferson was both a strong critic of official government establishments of religion and a staunch proponent of the free exercise of religion. . . [Read on]

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