Today, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, we remember the man who can list as his crowning achievement the Declaration of Independence. But with the Obamacare contraceptive mandate still fresh in our memories, perhaps it would be good to remember another aspect of Jefferson’s legacy: his staunch commitment to religious liberty.
Jefferson firmly believed in the importance of keeping government out of religion, and nowhere is this more evident than in his drafting of the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. This act boldly proclaims “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” The purpose of this law was to disestablish the Anglican Church as the official state religion and to ensure freedom of religion for all Virginians. This theme of allowing a person to worship any higher power they choose is connected to the Declaration’s right to pursue happiness.
Later, upon becoming our third President, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut in response to their complaints about the state legislature infringing on their religious liberties. Describing how he thought the federal government should act toward the states on matters of religion, he famously wrote that, although he sympathized with them, he could not act because “a wall of separation between Church and State” exists.
This statement by Jefferson has been at the center of controversy ever since Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black offered up the novel interpretation in 1947 that any government support for religion is unconstitutional. Jefferson’s words were twisted to imply a radical separation of religion and politics.
To shed some light on this issue, we can look to Jefferson’s own actions during his two terms as President. While in office, he personally approved federally funded programs that built churches and supported Christian missionaries who worked with the Indians. This does not sound like someone who wanted an impenetrable wall between “Church and State.”
Jefferson had strong opinions concerning the government’s role in the people’s practice of their religion, and this is apparent through his zealous advocacy of religious liberty with the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. So on his birthday, let’s set the record straight by remembering the man who believed in keeping politics out of religion, not the other way around.
Christopher Stevens is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/internships-young-leaders/the-heritage-foundation-internship-program.