Humanism, Thomas Jefferson and The Constitution

There are a large number of distinguished humanists but Thomas Jefferson does deserve more than a few words since he is responsible for the precursor to the First Amendment that is almost universally interpreted as the Constitutional justification for the separation of church and state; specifically: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The frequently used term, "Separation of Church and State", owes itself to a phrase in a letter written by Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists Association. Part of the text reads, “...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that 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.” Although some have tried arguing to the contrary, it does seem the preponderance of evidence suggests that Jefferson didn't believe in a Christian God. Regardless, we well know from his writing that he would have strenuously objected to and argued against the religious phrase, "under God," inserted by Congress in 1954 . (Previously,the "godless" Pledge of Allegiance was recited by generations of school children.)

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

His beliefs were complex but informed by scientific reason that may not necessarily have excluded some form of deism but did rule out established religions. Rather than argue the case here, readers unfortunate enough not to have had direct contact with Jefferson's mind can have a taste of its eloquence and brilliance from the following:

Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality. (Letter to J. Fishback, 1809).

This one small sample of Jefferson's writing does suggest a relativist view to morality that would have been anathema to Christians of the time and might well be unpalatable to many today! Regardless, it has generally been recognized as a good thing for America and a number of other countries that followed the wise example of separating church and state.

In John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence, the five-man drafting committee is presenting its work to the Continental Congress. Jefferson is the tall figure in the center laying the Declaration on the desk.
In John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence, the five-man drafting committee is presenting its work to the Continental Congress. Jefferson is the tall figure in the center laying the Declaration on the desk. | Source

The notion that the source of human morality lies in religion, particularly, one religion is again contradicted by Jefferson in another of his letters:

Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality. ” (Letter to J. Fishback, 1809. )

Christianity, I argue elsewhere, deserves particular credit for the deep insight of the teachings of Jesus that speaks to our responsibility to others. It seems to me that the notion of loving your neighbor as yourself is particularly admirable – it's the kind of world I'd like to inhabit and the philosophy that lies at the heart of the teaching that Jefferson admires. In a letter to John Adams in 1813, quoted in an article on Jefferson's Bible, described his intention:

In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.

Also, I have always liked and talked about The Parable of the Good Samaritan since I think that we are meant to learn that not only do we have a responsibility to those around us, we are not meant to check whether those needing help belong to the same race or religion as ourselves. These seem splendid and admirable goals and quite within the humanist spirit; and, further, I believe these are just the kind of things that we should hold as ideal and, I admit, are particularly appealing to the sentimental attraction I have for Medieval Platonic values.

But these ideas are not original to Jesus or Christianity, similar notions were and are to be found elsewhere. However these ideals do receive special emphasis and treatment by the Jesus of the New Testaments, and they have seem key elements in Christianity – although served more in the breach than the observance. Christians, like followers of all religions, have always been easy targets for the accusation of hypocrisy.

The present article on humanism was always envisaged as fourth in a series of articles. The first three address Christianity directly. They are published and are entitled:

  1. Is It Reasonable to Expect Christians to Practice What They Believe?

  2. The Temptations of Christ as Metaphor

  3. Love thy Neighbor: We are all Khaled Said

The next article I'm writing examines atheism, particularly in its modern context that is quite different to the cultural milieu of only a few decades ago. This present article on humanism is the fourth in the series. And, among other things, it does seem necessary to emphasize the belief that we should serve our fellows is not nor ever has been the sole preserve or teaching restricted to Christians, any other religion or humanists; elsewhere, I should have probably made the same point, since many Christians and believers in other gods are woefully ignorant of each others' beliefs as well as those of humanists.

The beliefs of many secular humanists often mirror those espoused by those who follow the teachings of Jesus and the majority of other religions. The idea that Christians are the only ones who hold many values solely is simply untrue. No religion and no group can claim a monopoly on humane acts, although they may well claim to have direct access to the will of the one true god who happens to be theirs. If humans were judged by their behaviors, it would not necessarily separate any one group such as Christians, members of another faith or humanists. It is a thought shared by Jefferson, although the term "humanist" didn't exist in his time anymore than "Christian" did during Jesus' time.

Wikipedia summarizes a generally accepted definition of one form of humanism quite nicely. Secular humanism, it says, is “An ideology which espouses, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.”

There are a number of rational steps that many humanists argue have led them to their position without the necessity of reverting to a prime mover or supreme being as a source for their ethics. I won't attempt to reconstruct the arguments now, since here the emphasis is to better explain that ethics are not the preserve of any one religion or even religion at all. Secular humanism has a history, and it is tempting to call it a prouder history than that of any religion since it proponents have been in favor of conserving rather than spilling human blood.

1881 US cartoon about President James A. Garfield, satirically contrasting his elaborate inauguration procession with that of Thomas Jefferson.
1881 US cartoon about President James A. Garfield, satirically contrasting his elaborate inauguration procession with that of Thomas Jefferson. | Source

Had the Internet existed in Jefferson's time, he'd have taken to it like a duck to water to disseminate, debate and refine his arguments. It says something to the paucity of our times that so view literary and intellectual giants seem to have arisen from the Internet. But it perhaps says something about the medium and times that, not surprisingly, it is not friendly to those who deal solely in words. Jefferson, one knows, would have used all facets of the Internet to ensure that questions of theology were not the business of government using YouTube and any other means at his disposal to argue with anyone who thought otherwise.

Jefferson's last quotation is important for a number of reasons including addressing one of the principle arguments mounted by many theologians, namely the notion that humans would have not been able to develop a moral and ethical framework without divine intervention. Today, it seems quite reasonable to believe that general rules developed along with the species to ensure their survival. At any time, it would have seemed just as reasonable to suspect that humans living together in society would generally agree on rules that prohibited murder, theft and falsely accusing others of these and other crimes; also, it isn't difficult to see how all cultures would want to discourage behaviors such as lying and encourage behaviors like hard work and respect to authority.

Generally, almost every culture share many startlingly similar beliefs and myths that demonstrate that we are more alike than leaders of opposing religions or nations with conflicting political aspirations would have us believe. Indeed, leaders know that it is necessary to demonize and dehumanize the “enemy” as much as possible prior to sending their soldiers to war.

Historically, humanists stressed what people had in common whereas other groups such as extreme nationalists, racists, and many devout monotheists, from religions such as Christians and Muslims, have spent most of their histories emphasizing their differences. The differences often had more to do with politics than ethics and routinely let to killing, torturing, trying to convert or persecuting each other or others who didn't or don't share their viewpoint. My reading and understanding of Jefferson suggests he is firmly in the humanist camp since he recognizes how religion is divisive in a state and is a faction that will always strive for and abuse its power.

Jefferson's recognition of religions' place in society seems to be summarized in the following passage. It suggests that he would have not only been opposed to their interference in politics but quite against the tax breaks and any other special benefits they presently enjoy. I can do no better than let Jefferson have the last words on behalf of many humanists and their view of religion in society and politics, when, in 1813, he wrote in a letter to von Huboldt:

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.

And, finally, in June, 1826, in a letter to Roger C. Weightman, in the last letter he ever penned:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

Jefferson's view that notions of freedom and religion were antithetical to each other seemed to remain with him to the end as did his view that science should and, eventually, would trump superstition and religion.

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Comments 19 comments

Tony DeLorger profile image

Tony DeLorger 5 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

Great hub Sem. I so admire your command of language. As always a well researched and beautifully written article.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Tony - What a fine compliment and really appreciated. However, your comment will encourage me to more fully earn such handsome praise in future. There's nothing more gratifying than hearing something encouraging from someone I respect as both an artist and a person.

Stay well,

Sem


arthurchappell profile image

arthurchappell 5 years ago from Manchester, England

good to see fellow Humanists celebrated in this way - a fine Hub - makes me want to know more about Jefferson's life now


Credence2 profile image

Credence2 5 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

Why can't we get the content of this hub to the cultural rightwing who say that the 'founding fathers' established Judeo-christianity in forming this great republic. Cultural conservatives always hedge their bets on the fact that you would not be willing to do the proper research to prove them wrong. Thanks for your scholarly article


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York

What a great essay. I share your admiration for Jeffersonian humanism without having to agree with it. For me, Jefferson’s wisdom lies not in his belief system but in his personal respect for those who held different religious views. His support for the separation of church and state was not intended to deny the existence of god. His aim was to prevent our republic from favoring one religion more than all others. He and the other founding fathers were well aware of the unfortunate experiences of both the Reformers and Separationist vs. The Church of England, and the influence of Rome in Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.

I am looking forward to reading more of your work. Q.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

It's an honour to comment immediately after my good friend Q.

This is an excellent piece. The 1954 insertion of 'under God' was an insult to one of the greatest minds of the early 19th century.

Jefferson was inclusive by nature. He realised that where humanity is concerned there is no 'one size fits all'. Therefore personal beliefs and national (pragmatic) law should be forever separate.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Hi Paraglider and Quilligrapher - Having coming fresh from reading each of your works, I feel honored receiving compliments from two writers who know their craft.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Hi Credence2: Thank you for the kind comment. I usually try and read at least one article of anyone leaving a comment through interest and to get a better sense of who I am replying too. I must have got side tracked from returning to your comment but have refreshed my memories of you and your writing by reading another of your articles.

Again, I feel humbled by receiving a complement from someone who writes so well and wisely.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Hi ArthurChappell, again my delay in writing back was that I got side tracked while looking for examples of your writing. You appear to be something of a mystery since I found no hubs either on hubpages or your website. A quick look at your facebook page told me more and combined with your profile info. I know enough so that I am even more pleased with your complement since it is not so anonymous. And I think that this is not the first time I've communicated with you, however your name seems to appear so frequently in comments sections that I may be wrong. In any event, you are still something of a mystery man. Please let me know where to find your writing.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 5 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

You know, here in Texas where I live, the state board of "Education" has pretty much obliterated anything to do with TJ from the curriculum.

He was a great thinker. I don't have to always agree to recognize the many fine contributions of his that are slowly being eradicated from this once fine nation.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Hi Wesman Todd Shaw: Thank you for contributing to the conversation. It seems that Jefferson and all the Founding Fathers attached a great deal of importance to education; in their eyes it must have seemed important to build a more perfect democracy. It seems strange there seem to be people who actively oppose all of the usual accepted criterion of a sound education.

Islamic countries failed to advance for centuries because they let religion interfere with education and science - it seems strange that some states should adopt a flawed policy when they should be looking for excellence.

You are not alone in your frustration.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

The very concept of creating a Constitution derived from the Founding Father's deep familiarity with the Covenants in the Christian Bible. From this same source they derived their beliefs in individuality, Providence, and of an eternal reality that exists beside our temporal world.

The Declaration of Independence—which Thomas Jefferson said was his greatest achievement—claims that our right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is granted to us by God the Creator of the universe—not by men or governments.

President Jefferson urged local governments to make land available specifically for Christian purposes; signed three separate acts setting aside government lands for the sole use of Christian groups and set aside government lands so that Moravian missionaries might be assisted in “promoting Christianity.”

When Washington D. C. became the national capital in 1800, Congress voted that the Capitol building would also serve as a church building. President Jefferson chose to attend church each Sunday at the Capitol and even provided the service with paid government musicians to assist in its worship. Jefferson also began similar Christian services in his own Executive Branch, both at the Treasury Building and at the War Office.

Jefferson praised the use of a local courthouse as a meeting place for Christian services; Jefferson assured a Christian religious school that it would receive “the patronage of the government”; Jefferson proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict a story from the Bible and include the word “God” in its motto; Jefferson closed his presidential documents with the phrase, “In the year of our Lord Christ; by the President; Thomas Jefferson.”

Thomas Jefferson said: "No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example."

Jefferson maintained: "The only secure basis for preserving liberty was a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God. Religion fosters habits of mind and heart conducive to the blessings and security of self-government."


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Thank you for taking the time to contribute an alternative view, James A Watkins. However it does seem that Jefferson is on record on a number of occasions as saying that there should be space between government and religion; and he is often credited as one of the principle sources of the recognition of the importance of the division between church and state.

No one can deny the influence of Christianity on Western Culture and I think that our modern notion of the individual and individual rights can be traced back to the New Testament. However, recognizing Christianity as an origin of important ideas or even as an integral part his culture does not detract from Jefferson's recognition that the church did not belong in the business of the state.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York

It’s good to run into you again, James. I, too, find Sembj’s work interesting. Jesus Christ may have been among the first advocates for separating matters of church and state. When asked what He thought about having to pay taxes to the Romans, it is said He replied, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Q.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

I am delighted with the quote, Quilligrapher, thank you. I am sure it is just the kind of sensible yet subtle remark that would have appealed to Jefferson.

As an aside, I do find the quote troubling though since I think it is the business of the individual to set him or herself against the state in matters of conscience - I am thinking of the grand tradition of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." Although the question was designed to trip Christ up, the answer of suggesting that paying Caesar's taxes is not contradicting God's law has been troubling since it always seemed that following the two laws could often be contradictory. Also the words somehow don't seem to be in character. Just a few thoughts on a quotation that I think should be more troubling for Christians and others who take an interest in the Bible than is usually acknowledged.


chefsref profile image

chefsref 5 years ago from Citra Florida

Excellent hub Sembj

Well researched and well presented. One wonders Where are the Jeffersons of this age?

We are faced with "Birthers" and "Truthers" and manipulators of facts while real issues go either un-addressed or turned over to powers which work against our individual interests in favor of big business. This would be a far different country if people followed the actual precepts of Christianity rather than the anti-humanist bigotry of "My God is better than your God"

Up and Awesome and a new follower!


Fay Paxton 5 years ago

Sembj, you are an excellent writer. Your hubs are so thought-provoking, I find myself sitting afterwards and pondering what I just read. You are masterful.

voted up/awesome


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Thank you Fay: Some articles are a result of years of pondering and some a few hours and some even less! I am delighted with the praise and hope to actually deserve something approaching your praise in time. Meanwhile, it really helps having such positive feedback, thank you.

Sem


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago Author

Hi chefsref - I cannot agree more; there certainly is not a dearth of good minds, I am sure, but it is puzzling that there are not more people who combine both stature of character as well as intellect to rise to leadership roles. My sense is that the culture has become so toxic that it might actually discourage the development of such persons or the climate discourages the participation of people of Jefferson's equal.

It is a time of many unique and frightening challenges; certainly Obama looked like he may have measured up but the jury is still out. My sense is that he has probably done better than most presidents could have done given all of the extraordinary challenges he's had; however, the voters might not be as kind in their assessment unless he is able to continue to steer the economy away from a full disaster and it builds up more steam before 2012!

But, as you say, where are all of the other brilliant people who could offer the US both the wisdom and leadership it needs? And if they were in open view, how many would recognize them, I wonder?

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