Faith & Freedom

Benjamin Hart

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The True Thomas Jefferson

The adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 represented a victory for Protestant and Whig ideals. For almost two centuries Whigs and dissenting Protestants had been partners in the same cause. In fact, the Whig movement in politics was little more than the application of Protestant religious principles to political science. Both had the same conception of government's limited role and often had overlapping membership. That is, Whigs tended to be dissenting Protestants; and dissenting Protestants tended to be Whigs.

America at the end of the 18th century was overwhelmingly Protestant, and of the dissident variety. Though precise figures on church membership are not available, we do have numbers on church bodies. In 1775 there were 668 Congregational churches; 588 Presbyterian; 494 Baptist; 310 Quaker; 159 German Reformed; 150 Lutheran; 65 Methodist; 31 Moravian; 27 Congregational-Separatist; 24 Dunker; and 16 Mennonite churches. The Anglican Church had 495 congregations, making it a decided minority in America at the time of the revolution. About 75 percent of all Americans belonged to churches of Puritan extraction. When dissenting Protestants and Anglicans are combined, we find a religious composition in America that was 98.4 percent Protestant, 1.4 percent Roman Catholic, and three-twen-tieths of one percent Jewish.

This is important, because the design of a political order at root is a religious issue, contingent on certain assumptions about the origin and nature of man; the kind of God to whom we will be held accountable; how we order our values; our conception of rights and obligations; and how we are to treat our neighbors either in person or through the instrument of the state. Certainly religion is a personal matter; but it has deep social and political implications. Every social order rests on certain religious assumptions, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly.

We don't see many explicit religious or philosophical references in the Constitution, as we do in the Declaration of Independence; but that is because these documents serve different purposes. The Declaration was a general statement of political philosophy, a creed of faith if you will, about the origin of our liberties: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . " The U.S. Constitution contains no such lofty rhetoric because it is purely functional - a device for the ordering of government and defining its responsibilities. It is a secular document because government in a free society is almost by definition a secular institution. Its purpose is purely mechanical, to enforce laws, provide for the common defense, and serve as a referee in disputes. But the Constitution, as it must, also contains many assumptions, religious in origin, about the nature of man and of human institutions. It is significant that the word "culture" comes from the word "cult," which Webster's Dictionary defines as "a system of religious beliefs." Culture is really little more than an expression of a people's religious tradition. This was certainly the case in early America. John Jay in Federalist 2 described America as he saw it in 1787:

"With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general liberty and in dependence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it were the design of Providence that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereiguties. Similar sentiments have hitherto prevailed among all orders and denominations of men among us. To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people."

Contrary to popular conception, deist beliefs played almost no role in America's founding. Deism is the idea that God does exist and created the universe, but that He is remote from human affairs. Thomas Jefferson wavered between Christian and deistic beliefs, and his views on Christianity are often cited by historians attempting to portray America's founders as humanist rationalists, or at least as theological liberals. But, according to Harvard historian Perry Miller (a fair-minded atheist), "European deism was an exotic plant in America, which never struck roots in American soil." And an English traveler in America made the following observations in 1822-23: "Instances of openly avowed deisni are rare. Persons who hold deistic opinions generally either keep them to themselves, or veil them under the garb of flimsy hypocrisy... In many parts, a man's reputation would be seriously injured if he were to avow himself one," which may have been one reason that Jefferson almost never discussed his own religious views. Timothy Dwight, also writing in 1823, observed that even at this late date European skepticism was almost wholly absent from the American scene: "An universal veneration for the Sabbath, a sacred respect for government, an undoubting belief in Divine revelation, and an unconditional acknowledgement and performance of the common social duties, constituted everywhere a prominent character."

We are fortunate that the American Republic was created at a time when there was such unanimity of opinion on what constitutes good government. The disagreements were over specifics, not fundamentals; means, not ends. There is no longer any such religious or even moral consensus, which is why it would probably be impossible for Americans today to hold a constitutional convention and have any reasonable prospect of producing a charter for government that would not be riddled with internal contradictions and inconsistencies. We can't even agree on the meaning of "religious freedom," as the federal courts have increasingly interpreted the First Amendment to mean "freedom from religion," an idea that is completely counter to what the founders were trying to achieve.

The basic political conflict in American society today is between those who believe God is the ultimate ruler of human affairs and those who think man is the final arbiter of truth. It is no accident that men such as Jerry Falwell and the Catholic Cardinal of New York, John J. O'Connor, are attacked with such irrational virulence by the proponents of so called pluralism, who like to think of themselves as enlightened and rational. Nowhere is this religious or philosophical collision more evident than in the controversy over the relationship between faith and politics, often mislabeled "church and state." The conflict has become so violent precisely because the issue goes straight to the heart of one's belief as to which creed should provide the foundation for the American political order: Judeo-Christian theism, or agnostic civil humanism.

There is no doubt that the majority opinion in America during the late 18th century was that separation of church and state was essential to preserving religious freedom. Americans had just fought a war in large part to free themselves from the shackles of the Anglican Church, which most Americans believed was an apostate church. The Americans saw all men and all human institutions as fallible - an essential Protestant tenet. Hence, for a particular sect to set itself up as the only possible expression of religious truth, and for the state to compel membership, was an abomination of New Testament teaching. Scripture was infallible, according to the prevailing Protestant view in America during the founding decades, but institutions and even human understanding of the Scriptures were imperfect, which is why there were so many Protestant sects. But the fact that there were so many Christian churches under different names did not bother most Americans, since most were in agreement on the essential doctrines of the faith. Americans wanted a government that did not favor one Christian sect over another. The general feeling was that competition between the various churches was desirable, tended to breathe fire into the religious life of a nation, and prevented any one denomination from becoming complacent, comfortable and arrogant, as had the English Church.

The battle for religious freedom in Anglican Virginia between 1776 and 1786 is illustrative. Again, one gets the impression from many histories that disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia represented a victory for theological liberalism and was symptomatic of a trend toward religious indifference. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Jefferson said in his Autobiography, in Virginia "the majority of our citizens were dissenters," meaning Separatist Protestants and descendants of Puritanism-Baptists and Congregationalists who were among the most serious (dogmatic, if you will) about their Christian beliefs. Indeed, reported Jefferson, "the first republican legislature, which met in 1776, was crowded with petitions to abolish the spiritual tyranny," by which he meant the Anglican Church.

The "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" to disestablish the Anglican Church was penned by Jefferson, proposed by Madison, and passed the assembly on January 16, 1786. There was almost no opposition to the bill in the final vote, not because there was any sentiment in Virginia against Christianity, but because there was steadfast opposition to the legally favored status of the Anglican Church, which had become a minority sect in Virginia. According to Jefferson's account, three-quarters of Virginia's population at the time of the American Revolution was dissenting Protestant. William Bradford, John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, and Jonathan Edwards would have led the disestablishment movement had they still been alive. Rarely included in most historical accounts of Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" is any extensive quotation from the text, because it inconveniently refutes the prevailing thesis that Jefferson intended to move America away from its theistic roots. In fact, his bill justifies itself on Protestant theological principles:

"Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do; that impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is both sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing of him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the par ticular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness."

William Bradford, Thomas Hooker, and George Whitefield would have agreed completely, and probably could not have stated the case better for disestablishment of the Anglican Church.

The Presbyterian minister Caleb Wallace made a similar case: It is, he said, "impossible for the magistrate to adjudge the right of preference among the various sects that profess the Christian faith without erecting the chair of infallibility, which would lead us back to the Church of Rome . . . Neither can it be made to appear that the Gospel needs any such civil aid. We rather conceive that when our Blessed Savior declares His kingdom is not of this world, He renounces all dependence on state power, and as His weapons are spiritual, and were only designed to have influence on the judgment and heart of man, we are persuaded that if mankind were left in the quiet possession of their inalienable rights and privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the Apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity, by its own native excellence, and under the all disposing Providence of God . . . Therefore, we ask no ecclesiastical establishments for ourselves."

This was the generally held American perspective: liberty of conscience is good because it is good for Christianity. Most believed that in a free society truth, if allowed to flourish, would prevail. To believe otherwise was to lack faith in the power of God's Word and His saving grace. So freedom of conscience was hardly an Enlightenment or humanist notion; it is a Christian principle applied to politics-though a principle, sadly, that many Christians through the ages have failed to grasp.


No issue in American politics today is prone to more egregious distortion than the entire controversy over separation of church and state. The religion clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted by the courts in recent decades to ban religious expression in the public schools - from prayer to the posting of the Ten Commandments - as an assault on the liberties of non-believers. How the posting of the Ten Commandments, or how publicly expressing thanks to our Creator for all He has given us threatens the liberties of anyone, no one has explained satisfactorily. But one would have to have a very warped perspective on American history to believe the Founding Fathers intended or foresaw the federal government being used to bludgeon Christianity.

The religion clause of the First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" The clear intent of the First Amendment was to protect a religious people from government, not to protect government from a religious people. The entire Constitution, in fact, is about placing restraints on the federal government, which is only empowered to do a few very specific tasks, none of which involves interfering in the religious lives of the people of the several states. "Congress shall make no law . . . "is the operative phrase. Nothing is said here about the states. Indeed, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut all had officially recognized religious establishments, supported by tax revenue, for more than a half century after the First Amendment was passed. In fact, it was the established churches that were among the most vociferous proponents of the religion clause because they were worried about federal interference in the religious practices of the states. Although it was James Madison who first introduced the amendment, it was the version proposed by Fisher Ames, a Congregationalist from Massachusetts, that was adopted. The Ames version was more explicit than Madison's in protecting state religious establishments from federal interference. He was a staunch defender of the Congregational establishment, which was the official church of Massachusetts.

It should be stressed here that one should never favor any state establishing any church (even if it is one's own church) because this is not a proper government function. A state-supported church structure is a contradiction of a basic Protestant tenet, and is especially anathema to a central principle of Congregationalism that each church was to be a voluntary assembly of "saints"-which is yet more evidence of how even the best ideas and institutions become corrupted under human stewardship. But the fact remains: the First Amendment does not prohibit religious establishments in the states. It only forbids a national religious establishment, as is suggested by the fact that the First Amendment was not applied to the states until 1940. Defenders of liberty should not be excessively alarmed, however, because the religious establishments that existed in America at the start of the 19th century were very mild.

Each town in Massachusetts, for example, was authorized under the state constitution "to make suitable provision," at its own expense, "for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality." But, under the Massachusetts constitution each citizen could designate the church of his preference to which his tax money could be sent. If no church was indicated, his tax-the equivalent of a tithe-would support the Congregational Church. Almost no one, except a few malcontents, thought this idea terribly oppressive, since most residents of Massachusetts were Protestants and tithing to one church or another. Holders of public office in Massachusetts also had to take an oath that they "believe in the Christian religion and have a firm persuasion of the truth," which certainly would not have excluded many Americans at the time. In fact, 10 of 13 states officially sanctioned a particular religious perspective long after passage of the Constitution, and most states had religious requirements for public office, such as an elected official had to be a Protestant, a Trinitarian, or a believer in God.

To vote in New Hampshire one had to be not only a Christian, but a Protestant, a requirement that was not eliminated for more than a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. According to a study on religion and the First Amendment by M. Stanton Evans, only Christians could hold office in Maryland until 1826. Only Protestant Christians could hold office in North Carolina until 1835. In New Jersey, Catholics were explicitly excluded from holding office until 1844. Even Vermont, one of the most theologically liberal states, required holders of public office to take the following oath: "I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the Rewarder of the good and Punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by divine inspiration and own and profess the Protestant religion." These laws, though archaic from a modern perspective, merely reflected widely held sentiment during the founding of the American nation. In a Moslem country we would expect to find a code of laws that stem from an Islamic tradition.

Certainly, religious tests are wrong, because they can be twisted by men in power to suit their own political aims, as indeed such religious tests were used for perverse ends by the English Church and its allies in the British government. Nevertheless, the U.S. Constitution does not prevent the several states from imposing religious tests for public officials; it only bans religious tests for those holding national office.

The Constitution also does not forbid the federal government from promoting religion in a general way, as the Continental Congress had done in 1780 when it authorized, among other measures, the printing of a Bible, so long as it was orthodox. The First Amendment was not supposed to contradict the Northwest Ordinance, first passed in 1787 and reenacted in 1789, which set aside federal lands and funds for the building of schools in order to promote "religion, morality and knowledge," such things "being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind."

Justice Joseph Story was more specific. Appointed to the Supreme Court in 1811 by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, Story is considered one of the foremost authorities on the Constitution and the intent of its framers. In his multivolume classic of American law, Commentai.ies on the Constitution of the United States, Story wrote: "The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less advance, Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution (the vice and pest of former ages), and the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age. . ."

What could not occur under the American system was the establishment of, say, the Baptist Church as the official faith of the nation. An important objective of the religion clause was to avert disunity among the states, which would have occurred if the national government had favored a particular denomination over all others. The First Amendment was designed to avoid sectarian conflict over control of the government. But it was clear, in the view of Justice Story and virtualy everyone else at the time, that the federal government could be a friend to Christianity in general, and would be expected to be so since Americans were overwhelmingly Christian.

A government "of the people" ought to reflect the values of the people it is to govern, which is why one of the initial acts of the first House of Representatives was to elect a chaplain, the Reverend William Linn. Indeed, the Reverend Linn was paid an annual salary of $500 out of federal funds. James Madison, who originally proposed the First Amendment, sat on the committee recommending that Congress needed a chaplain. Also passed, the day after the First Amendment was adopted, was a national day of "Prayer and Thanksgiving," a holiday we still celebrate. Madison, as President, issued at least four "Thanksgiving Day" proclamations, sample excerpts of which follow: "The Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States have by a joint resolution signified that a day may be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a day of thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgements of Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessings of peace.

"No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of events and of the destiny of nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pur suits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government.

"And to the same Divine Author of every good and perfect gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land. . ."

Thus James Madison's understanding of the religion clause, which he proposed, in no way whatsoever prevented the federal government from having a general religious perspective. Madison would probably agree with Justice Story, who wrote in his Commentaries that "the general if not universal sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state so far as it was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation." The framers clearly believed that religious faith influences, and should influence, the political order.

One should consider liberty to be in grave danger if an American political leader were to announce that he had no religious convictions, or that he drew his morality from some source other than the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition. To which god would he then be paying tribute? The answer would have an important bearing on the future of our political system. The Christian faith is, and should be, concerned mainly with the state of the heart, mind, and soul. Ultimately, the kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of the world are in conflict, as Charles Colson has pointed out so brilliantly in his book, Kingdoms in Conflict. But as long as Christians must live in this world, they cannot help but bring their faith to bear on political questions-a fact that the Supreme Court does not seem to understand. Indeed, it seems obvious that the world would be far freer and more humane if Christians were more active than they currently are in the political realm.

There is little point in going extensively into the tedious and convoluted reasoning behind the Supreme Court's ongoing project to expunge all references to God from the public domain. The various cases have been dealt with voluminously in other books. But it is interesting that the Court says virtually nothing about the history of the religion clause in handing down its decisions regarding it. The modern Court hangs its entire interpretation on a phrase - "building a wall of separation between church and state"-contained in a letter by Thomas Jefferson addressed to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association on January 1, 1802. Jefferson wrote:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which is solely between man and God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reaches actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that an act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state [emphasis added]."

Jefferson here was clearly talking about the "whole American people," meaning the federal government could not impose a national church, as Jefferson explained later in a letter to a Presbyterian minister: "Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority and religious discipline has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states as far as it can be in any human authority."

Jefferson did not believe the central government had the authority to knock down state religious establishments; nor did he think the central government should be neutral on the question of religion. In fact, as President he used federal money to build churches and establish missions for the purpose of bringing the Gospel to the Indians. What the federal government was prohibited from doing, in Jefferson's view, was prescribing a particular set of religious rites or promoting a particular sect at the expense of others.

According to Robert L. Cord's Separation of Church and State, one of the most thoroughly researched books on this issue, Jefferson would have been aghast if he had thought the First Amendment could be used to undermine the Christian faith, or even if the religion clause could be used to bar the federal government from favoring the Christian religion in a general way over, say, Mohammedanism, atheism, or some other creed completely at odds with America's founding principles. In 1803, according to Cord, Jefferson asked the Senate to ratify a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians which stipulated the following: "And whereas, the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and received into the Catholic Church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office and also to instruct as many of their children as possible in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church."

The Catholic Church, Cord points out, was recognized by Jefferson as the legitimate beneficiary of this legislation because it was Catholics who happened to be most involved in educating and ministering to this particular tribe. The bill was passed into law on November 25, 1803. Thus, in Jefferson's view, not only could the federal government, under the Constitution, advance the cause of religion generally; it could do so, as circumstances warranted, by using a particular denomination as its agent, even so unpopular a one as the Catholic Church. Similar projects to educate and convert the Indians were also passed into law with respect to other tribes under the Jefferson presidency. Moreover, Jefferson never expressed opposition to a law passed on June 1, 1796, by the Fourth Congress (prior to his presidency) "regulating the grants of land. . . for the Society of the United Brethren [a church], for the propagating of the Gospel among the Heathen," the point of which was to provide federal resources to this church for the purpose of proselytizing. Indeed, Cord points out, many Presidents, including George Washington, James Monroe, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren, and Andrew Jackson, also built churches of various denominations with federal money through treaty agreements with the aim of bringing the Gospel to the Indians.

According to J. M. O'Neill, in his book Religion and Education Under the Constitution, "By 1896, Congress was appropriating annually over $500,000 in support of sectarian Indian education carried on by religious organizations." The Seventh Congress passed legislation making churches tax exempt, a tradition that continues today, but which is under attack by People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other anti-religious lobbies. President Jefferson, quite clearly, did not believe giving tax exempt status to churches was a violation of the First Amendment, since he signed the provision into law.

Jefferson is frequently cited here because his views are often erroneously used to support complete government neutrality on religious matters-an impossible task given the fact that government is an institution administered by men who presumably think. Also, the Jefferson position, properly understood, is correct. But it is amusing, if not tragic, that the prevailing misinterpretation of the religion clause is wholly based on a distorted analysis of the intentions of a man who was not even present when the First Amendment was proposed, debated, and passed. He was the U.S. Minister to Paris at the time. Moreover, even if Jefferson were present, and even if his views were hostile to Christianity (which is not the case), he would still represent the opinion of only one man. What Jefferson thought of the First Amendment is actually irrelevant from the standpoint of interpreting the law, which he had no hand in shaping. It is extremely frustrating to write histoiy today because so much effort must go toward correcting the countless distortions that have been inserted into accounts of our heritage by militant secularists who twist facts to suit their narrow anti-religious political agendas.

Because of the popular portrait of Jefferson as a radical secularist and enemy of religion, Christians are sometimes inclined to completely dismiss Jefferson. This is a serious mistake. A parenthetical phrase taken out of context in a letter he wrote to Baptist ministers in Danbury, Connecticut, has been used to distort the true Jefferson. Ignored, for example, are Jefferson's Regulations for the University of Virginia which he founded. Written on October 4, 1824, his rules state: "Should the religious sects of this State, or any of them, according to the invitation held out to them, establish within, or adjacent to, the precincts of the University, schools for instruction in the religion of their sect, the students of the University will be free, and expected to attend religious worship at the establishment of their respective sects, in the morning, and in time to meet their school in the University at its stated hour" (emphasis added).

Furthermore, Jefferson's rules stipulate: "The students of such religious schools, if they attend any school or University, shall be considered as students of the University, subject to the same regulations, and entitled to the same rights and privileges." Whether or not Jefferson himself was a Christian is open to question. The evidence suggests that he wavered between deism and the New Testament faith. But there is no doubt that he believed religious ideas essential to education and the development of character. "The relations which exist between man and his Maker, and the duties resulting from those relations, are the most interesting and important to every human being, and most incumbent on his study and investigation," he wrote in an October 7, 1822, memorandum clarifying the University's regulations. He, therefore, recommended the establishment of a professional school of "Theology and Ecclesiastical History." He also believed that "profane swearing," meaning deriding that which is "sacred and holy," if not immediately corrected, was grounds for dismissal from the university - which incidentally was financed by tax revenue. If Jefferson's mind was shaped by the Enlightenment, it was the sober Christian Enlightenment of Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone, not the bitter and God-hating doctrines of Rousseau, Diderot, and D'Alembert.

We have seen how Jefferson's and Madison's efforts to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia have been egregiously distorted to support strict separation between faith and politics. Usually omitted from the legislative histories penned by radical secularists is Madison's "Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers" - especially interesting because it was presented the same day (October 31, 1785) as Madison's and Jefferson's "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom." The law providing for the punishment of Sabbath breakers included the following language: "If any person on Sunday shall himself be found laboring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ the apprentices, servants or slaves in labor, or other business, except it be in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity, he shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every such offense, deeming every apprentice, servant, or slave so employed, and every day he shall be so employed as constituting a distinct offense." Jefferson wrote many of the bills introduced by Madison, and probably drafted this one as well.

Even those alarmed today by the general moral laxity and deterioration of religious life of the nation would probably consider a law punishing Sabbath breakers as symptomatic of fundamentalist zealotry, and placing at peril the civil liberties of all Americans. Madison's proposal, which passed in 1789, went well beyond the usual request by Christians today that they be permitted equal time and equal access to public facilities. If Jefferson did not actually write the Madison bill, which he probably did, there is no evidence that he objected to it, or that he found it in any way contradictory to his view of religious freedom.

Also on the same day that Jefferson and Madison introduced their bill for religious freedom in Virginia, Madison introduced another bill, again probably written by Jefferson, "For Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving," which called for "forfeiting fifty pounds for every failure, not having a reasonable excuse," if such a day was not observed by the local churches. Thus it seems clear that Jefferson's and Madison's views on religious freedom would not involve the Supreme Court mandating that the Ten Commandments be torn off the bulletin boards of public schools; nor require that there be any restrictions on prayer whatsoever. These founding fathers would consider the firing of a teacher for holding a voluntary Bible study for her students after hours in the privacy of her own home - as recently occurred near my home in Fairfax County, Virginia-to be the height of moral confusion.

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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart