Monday, February 22, 2010

Jefferson Was Not Monolithic In His Thinking

If one were to get information only from current discussions, especially in the press, one could think Thomas Jefferson thought they only important aspect of the religion clauses of the Constitution's First Amendment was in guaranteeing a "separation of church and state" (whatever that phrase much have meant to him). It is Jefferson who is quoted when the "separation" phrase is invoked.

But is that all we know about President Jefferson's thoughts? Certainly (and luckily) not. The University of Virginia, which he founded, had collected many of his letters and official papers. Those are freely available online.

So some interests use "separation" to block prayers before city council meetings, as one example. Often they say a "generic" prayer is fine, but the praying party may not mention Christ. Does that seem to fit the following thought of Jefferson?

"The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1819. ME 19:416


Doug Indeap said...

It does fit if you consider that the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of individuals to exercise their religions and constrains the federal government (and, via the Fourteenth Amendment, state and local governments) not to promote or otherwise take steps to establish religion. A central issue, then, is to ascertain whether such a prayer is the act of an individual or a government.

As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

Recognizing that legislative prayer is government action, the courts nonetheless have given it a pass owing to its "unique history." They require only that legislatures confine themselves to nonsectarian prayer that does not proselytize or promote any one religion or disparage another.

History Matters said...

Your boiler plate seems to be addressing a different point, but in re-reading my post I can see that I was not as clear as I would have liked.

Jefferson did have a more private & personal concept when thinking of how religion should interact with an official's duty than, say, George Washington did. However, Jefferson did not maintain the strict separation the way some today would like to say he did. Here are examples (taken from this post):

Even Thomas Jefferson, to whom we usually attribute the phrase "Separation of Church and State," apparently did not have such fears. Jefferson was the founder of the University of Virginia. From its inception in 1819, the school was governed, managed, and controlled by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Consider:

* In order to accommodate and perpetuate the religious beliefs and practices of students at the university, he recommended that students be allowed to meet on the campus to pray, worship, and receive religious instruction, or, if necessary, to meet and pray with their professors.

* He provided in his regulations for the University of Virginia that the main rotunda be used for religious worship under the regulations allowed to be prescribed by law.

* He proposed that all University of Virginia students be required to study as a matter of ethics "the proofs of the being of a God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all relations within morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer."

Or in another previous post I pointed out that Jefferson and Madison helped create a Sabbath Law for Virginia, the Virginia Sabbath Law in 1786. It was Bill No. 84 and said:

"If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ his apprentices, servants or slaves in labour, 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 offence, deeming every apprentice, servant, or slave so employed, and every day he shall be so employed as constituting a distinct offence." (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 555)

The point is that Jefferson's actions do not support the way some wish to portray him today.