More than 190 years after his death, Thomas Jefferson remains something of an enigma. Undeniably one of our most brilliant presidents, he can also be one of the most exasperating.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, penning stirring words of liberty that still inspire people today. Yet the same Jefferson who spoke of all men being created equal and endowed with unalienable rights lived on the labor of enslaved people. He spoke frequently of the need for them to be out of bondage but did nothing to free those he owned. Upon his death, families were broken up and sold to pay his debts, a cruel practice Jefferson always said he opposed; this happened because he made no other provision for them in his will.
Jefferson’s views on slavery can’t help but disappoint the modern mind. He could never bring himself to make the necessary personal sacrifices to fully embrace a more humane and progressive view.
But as much as he was a product of his times on race, Jefferson was far ahead of his contemporaries in another area: religious freedom.
John B. Boles’ new biography of Jefferson, Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty, is a sympathetic, yet sober, analysis of the life of this important, but often challenging, figure in American history.
Boles is the William P. Hobby Professor of History at Rice University. His book is a survey of Jefferson’s entire life, not a specific study of his views on church-state relations or religion. Yet readers will find much about these topics; in addition, Boles’s wider discussion provides a useful analysis that puts Jefferson in the context of his times.
The reader quickly learns that religious freedom was a lifelong interest of Jefferson’s. In 1776, looking forward to independence, Jefferson produced a draft of a new constitution for Virginia. One provision read, “All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution.”
If that language sounds familiar, it’s for a good reason: In a different form, it resurfaced 10 years later in Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, and there’s more than an echo of its spirit in the First Amendment.
Although Jefferson’s constitution was not adopted, he did manage to influence a list of rights produced by George Mason that were originally intended to be a preamble to the document. What we now call the Virginia Declaration of Rights originally asserted that all men “should enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate.”
To Jefferson, this did not go far enough. He supported an explicit guarantee of religious freedom, not mere protection for toleration. Alongside his ally James Madison, Jefferson continued the push for absolute religious freedom.
“Their friendship and collaboration would last five decades, though no issue they addressed together would be more important than the first concerning religious freedom in Virginia,” writes Boles.
(Indeed, the partnership between Jefferson and Madison resurfaces periodically throughout the book and is one of its most charming features. One gets a sense of Madison as not just a sounding board but an active partner, patiently pulling Jefferson off the ledge when his ideas became a little too abstract. It’s worth remembering that as visionary as Jefferson’s Virginia Statute was, it would have remained words on paper had not Madison pushed it through and made it law.)
Boles also discusses Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, providing some important detail. Religious Right activists often laud the fact that the Declaration contains four references to God (although they are deistic). As it turns out, Jefferson is responsible for only two of them. Jefferson did refer to “Nature’s God” and said people were “endowed by their Creator” with rights. But references to the “supreme judge of the world” and “divine providence” were added by members of Congress who edited Jefferson’s work.
Other parts of the book explore lesser-known instances that showcase Jefferson’s interest in religious liberty. An example: As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates at the start of the Revolution, Jefferson tried (unsuccessfully) to sever the College of William and Mary’s ties to the Anglican Church and convert it to a secular institution. Nothing came of the proposal, but Jefferson was able to create a truly secular institution of higher education years later when he helped found the University of Virginia.
Boles gives a thorough treatment to the passage of the Virginia Statute and goes into considerable detail over Jefferson’s Jan. 1, 1802, letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association, the missive that contains his famous “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor. Boles calls the letter “one of the most consequential in the entire corpus of Jefferson’s correspondence. … Nowhere did he express his long-standing views on religious freedom with more power or eloquence.”
Some of the most interesting sections of the book concern Jefferson’s religious views and creation of his own version of the Bible. The famous “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” (aka the “Jefferson Bible”) is an amazing document. Jefferson made it by cutting up sections of the Gospels with a knife and discarding the portions he did not accept. As Boles puts it, the result was “a rationalist interpretation of the Gospel story, with no virgin birth, no miracles, no resurrection, no claims of divinity on Jesus’s part, and no references to anything that smacked of the Trinity.”
Intended as a private devotional, Jefferson’s edited version of the Gospels was never meant to become public, although it was published many years after his death. (The original copy is in the hands of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2011, it was put on display in the National Museum of American History.)
Jefferson’s Jesus is very much a human figure, which is not surprising given our third president’s decidedly heterodox religious views. As Jefferson himself once famously quipped, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
Today we all have the right to be of a sect unto ourselves, and we owe that in no small measure to Thomas Jefferson’s far-reaching vision of religious freedom.
This well written and compelling book will likely take its place alongside a handful of other great biographies of this intriguing – and, yes – flawed figure.
In other book news:
* In the late 1970s, Americans United joined forces with a conservative group in a legal challenge to the teaching of Transcendental Meditation (TM) in a New Jersey public school. AU and its allies, which argued that TM is an offshoot of Hinduism, won the lawsuit.
That should have ended the matter. But TM adherents retooled their belief as a “science” and, backed by filmmaker David Lynch, have been pushing anew to get it into public schools. Several in California have taken the bait.
Aryeh Siegel, who practiced TM from 1971-81, argues in his new book Transcendental Deception (Janreg Press, 222 pp.) that the use of TM in public schools presents a serious church-state violation.
Siegel notes that TM is anchored in what he calls a “watered-down” version of Hinduism practiced by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He asserts that this “simplified” version was subjected to a “slice and dice” by the Maharishi while still retaining some core rituals of that ancient faith.
Over time, TM advocates began making extravagant claims – that they could teach people to fly, become invisible and have “supernormal” sight and hearing. They began calling the movement a “science.” (For a time, TM even had a political arm called the Natural Law Party.) Practitioners insisted that TM could end all crime and terrorism, as well as bring world peace.
Siegel’s beef is not with meditation. That practice, he notes, can be very helpful as a stress-reduction tool, and students can benefit from it. But, as Siegel points out, there are many truly secular meditation techniques that don’t come saddled with TM’s baggage.
Adults have the right to join whatever religion they want, even ones with unusual or esoteric beliefs. But when religious movements attempt to clothe themselves as science to sneak into public institutions and target kids, there’s ample cause for concern. Siegel makes a strong case that TM doesn’t belong in our public schools.