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Jefferson's Division: The Separation of Church and State

Updated on November 15, 2015

Jefferson had many opinions regarding morality, religion, politics and government. One such opinion is one of the most influential in American history that was a combination of all these factors. This was the division of church and state. This became a necessary idea and was what Jefferson believed was needed in order to have a functional and less corruptible government.

In the time of Jefferson, and many generations before, the church was involved in the government and was very influential in everyday politics. Many different religious denominations fought for this influence within the city and state governments. This influence was in the form of bribes and such designed to create an atmosphere that would allow favored religious affiliates to obtain offices or, cause many already in office to drop their beliefs and adopt new ones that corresponded to those who paid them. The denomination that spread the most influence among those of the government ruling class became powerful and could exert their religious beliefs into the practices of the government therefore, exerting these believes upon the people. This caused many to be forced to believe the many certain beliefs that may have caused the past separations of the different denominations. Many could even potentially be forced physically due to the fact that heresy was still a crime according to the state law of Jefferson’s home state of Virginia. Jews, Quakers and Catholics were even forbidden from holding office.

Jefferson viewed this corruption as an issue within the government and that if any functional government was to be created, this issue would have to be rectified. Jefferson tackled this issue in his bill to the General Assembly of Virginia in 1785. In this bill entitled, “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia”, Jefferson made numerous intelligent points geared at the idea that man has the ability to form his own opinion and he should not be ridiculed for the opinions and religious decisions that he makes. Jefferson states that God himself has created man with a free mind and that any form of coercion to alter or limit the free mind from thinking is not what God designed. God designed our way of thinking to not have one set of beliefs but to form our own opinions and beliefs through reason. Man should not be forced into support of a religion that he does not identify with financially or in any other way. In his opinion, this was forcing the people to pay taxes toward a conformity in certain religious or denominational ideas which may or may not have been the ideas of the public but were definitely the ideas of the ruling class, which was depriving the people of their liberty. Man is full of faults and for man and government to interfere with the beliefs of the people by creating the standards for worship was limiting the minds of society through tyrannical acts. The whole system of religion and government co-mingling was not working and in Thomas Jefferson’s eyes, this was going against the morals that are taught by, “the holy author of our religion”. The corruption needed to stop and the only way to stop it was to separate the church from the state.

Jefferson was a strong believer in God but did not conform to any religion. Many believe he was Unitarian or Deist. This idea was due to his comments in many of his letters and documents including one to a Rev. James Smith on December 8, 1822. In this letter he commented on his appreciation for the reverend’s work as a Unitarian pastor. He also stated, “I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States”. Also, in his references to God, he calls God, “the Creator”, “the holy author” or “Nature’s God” which corresponds to the idea in Deism where God is the supreme architect of the world and just sits and watches his creation play out without interfering with man. Almost like he cranked up a watch and is watching it tick. Though many ideas point in different directions, one thing is clear and that is that Jefferson believed in God but also believed that the church was corrupt. He also did not believe in the ability of God to intervene in the life of man. Instead, he believed that God gave to man natural rights and the ability to reason. He also believed that Jesus was a great teacher of morality and followed his teachings in his own life. Even creating a version of the Bible (using a cut and paste method) that was strictly the teachings of Christ without the miracles that, in his thoughts, were used to control people’s freethinking in the church.

Though Jefferson believed greatly in the existence of God, he did believe that the church was corrupted and was influencing the government negatively. In his words he believed that, “the opinions of man are not the subject of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction”. In other words, the government should have nothing to do with the whether anyone should be any religion or denomination of a religion. People’s opinions about religion do not matter. What does matter, according to Jefferson, is natural rights and by having corrupt religious affiliates within our system of government, we are infringing on societies natural rights. This is because religious affiliates rise to positions of power and make it their priority to create laws and such that are in support of their own religious group and their own agenda.

Jefferson believes strongly that religion has no relation to your rights but it is your right to practice whatever religion you deem fit without outside influence and your (natural) rights cannot be taken from you. Also, the government should only act in matters that are injurious toward other members of society and the corruption caused by the co-mingling of church and state is a danger to the peace and prosperity of our society because it endangers the natural rights of man. Government realized the importance behind Jefferson’s teachings regarding church and state. Jefferson taught that the religion does not work in our government because people believe all different ways and, those with the power will influence others and when this is the case people are not truly free and don’t have their liberty and can’t pursuit happiness as long as government and religion are entwined. The government will be too strong and limit speech and religion violating the natural rights of Americans. The religious opinions of man have no place in government and, these opinions of man are not to be punished. It was Jefferson’s belief that with religion, the truth comes from punishment and coercion by the church but, in reality the truth can only arise through open discussion and that we should correct error through free discussion because the truth will play out in the market place of ideas.

Thomas Jefferson was a complex man with complex ideas for his time. Religion was a big aspect of peoples lives in his day and this country was becoming a melting pot of diversity. Thomas Jefferson realized that this diversity would only grow as more and more people from all over the world hear of the ideas and values that are a part of being an American. The only way for government to work and not show favoritism toward any one religious group would be to separate our diverse religious lives from that of running our government. To allow one way of worship only in our nation would be against the natural rights of man, which include freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every man should be allowed to use reason in the decision of worship. God gave man the ability of freethinking and to not use this ability is limiting the function of our society. The truth can only arise through free speech with the discussion of mans ideas. To limit man from finding his own truth through the coercion of society into believing one set of beliefs and only speaking on those beliefs is tyranny and against not only the natural rights of man but against the teachings of our “holy author”.


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      Sooner28 6 years ago

      It's truly difficult to completely separate church and state. As a liberal agnostic(maybe, I still don't know what to call myself exactly), I find many religious conservatives influence in the government disturbing, especially with the curbing of reproductive rights for women and same-sex marriage being constantly fought against.

      But liberal Christianity, which I do not have much disagreement with when it comes to political matters, claims they use Jesus as inspiration to help the poor and support social programs. That sounds like an influence of church on state, albeit a good one!

      I think religion can play a modest role, but it has to be subservient to scientific findings. If scientists find that we evolved, that the climate is being warmed, and that being gay is not a choice, the religious must accept it. But if a religion wants to promote being a good person or helping the poor (and not damning unbelievers to hell in the process), I have no beef with that. Good hub, voted up.

    • mio cid profile image

      mio cid 6 years ago from Uruguay

      great article,very informative although it's the kind that drives the fundamentalists crazy.