Jefferson vs. the religious right

September 16, 1994|By Isaac Kramnick

ITHACA, N.Y. — C Ithaca, N.Y. -- AS THE religious right flexes its muscles, even moderate politicians find themselves under harsh attack for their stands on seemingly non-religious issues like health care and welfare reform.

But assaults by Christians on American leaders as enemies of Christianity are nothing new.

In 1787, when the framers excluded all mention of God from the U.S. Constitution, they were widely denounced as immoral and the document was denounced as godless, which is precisely what it is.

Its opponents challenged ratifying conventions in nearly every state, drawing special attention to the stipulation in Article VI, Section 3: "No religious test shall be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States."

An anti-Federalist in North Carolina wrote: "The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. . . . Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain office among us."

Amos Singletary of Massachusetts, one of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution, joined in with the affirmation that though he "hoped to see Christians [in power], yet by the Constitution, a papist or an infidel was as eligible as they."

For another North Carolinian, David Caldwell, the prohibition of religious tests "constituted an invitation for Jews and Pagans of every kind to come among us."

He added that since Christianity was the best religion for producing "good members of society . . . those gentlemen who formed this Constitution should not have given this invitation to Jews and Heathens."

Although the Christian assault on the Constitution failed, the campaign to Christianize American politics continued.

Many states adopted religious tests as mandatory for public officials. Some of these laws stayed on the books (although rarely enforced) until the mid-20th century.

Attacks on godless officials were familiar in every epoch.

Probably the most notable target was Thomas Jefferson, the source of the principle of the wall of separation between church and state.

Jefferson, like Benjamin Franklin, was deeply suspicious of religion and of clergy wielding political power. He wrote of an unholy triumvirate of people's enemies: "Kings, nobles or priests."

Jefferson helped create the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, incurring the wrath of pious Christians by his fervent defense of toleration of atheists: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others, but it does no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 Gods or no God. It neither picks my pockets nor breaks my leg."

When Jefferson ran for president in 1800, the full fury of the Christian clergy was unleashed on him. They alleged that as ambassador to France, he had been a close friend of anti-Christian worshippers of reason who had brought on the horrors of the French Revolution.

So furious were the attacks that Jefferson sat out the election campaign in the seclusion of his beloved Monticello.

Jefferson's good friend, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, kept him well informed of election news.

Many clergymen in Philadelphia, Rush noted in one letter, had preached the previous Sunday that a vote for Jefferson was a vote for godless, Jacobin leveling.

An angry Jefferson, having no recourse to TV talk shows, sent his reply to the clerics in a letter to Rush.

That letter contained a declaration that is today literally engraved in stone. It graces the base of the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Most tourists who look up at those stirring words probably assume they refer to tyrants like George III or Louis XVI.

How relevant for our contemporary debate over church and state to recall that Jefferson was actually referring to the Christian clergy in the city where American independence was born.

Isaac Kramnick is a professor of government at Cornell University. He wrote this for the New York Times.

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