Sam Haselby on Thomas Jefferson and American Religious Nationalism

The website Religion & Politics is running an adapted excerpt from Sam Haselby‘s excellent book The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.  Some of you may recall that we featured Haselby’s book in a recent “Author’s Corner” post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Our friend John Wilsey recently reviewed it here.

Haselby is senior editor at Aeon and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University.

Here is a taste of his excerpt on Thomas Jefferson and American religion:

For the inscription on his tombstone, Jefferson chose three accomplishments: the Declaration of Independence, the founding of the University of Virginia, and Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom. Each of these achievements is related to the problem of religion and nationalism. In the Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson characteristically brought high rationalism to the subject of religion and poetry to the scientific spirit. His testimony to the power of truth and free inquiry, closing the first section of the statute, is the very essence of the Enlightenment: “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” wrote Jefferson: “She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless, by human interpolation, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate—errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” Madison’s deft stewardship through the Virginia House of Delegates made the bill into law, and he wrote to Jefferson exulting that we “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Jefferson concurred, replying that “kings, priests, & nobles” had for centuries conspired to keep man in ignorant subordination. It was Virginia’s great honor “to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions.” In the context of early modern political philosophy, to state that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions was another way of stating the radical content of “all men are created equal.” The famous phrase did not mean that men possessed equal physical or intellectual capacities. It meant that all men could reason and were capable of acting as responsible, and accountable, moral agents. It was, and remains, a radical idea. 

Disestablishment and freedom of religion amounted to historic secular achievements, but Jefferson and Madison had intended them as simply creating the conditions of possibility, as the first steps, toward a secular society. Positive measures must follow. The most important were founding schools and libraries, educating qualified teachers, and providing the people with rudimentary scientific and literary education, especially in philosophy. Scientific and philosophical education was necessary to replace the moral influence, social programs, and historical teachings of the churches. So Jefferson proposed alternatives to Christian institutions. In the 1785–1786 session of the Virginia Assembly, his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” was bill number 82 of 126 proposed bills. Bills 79, 80, and 81 were also Jefferson’s. These bills proposed to create a nonreligious school system, organized by county and providing free education through the elementary grades; to sever the College of William and Mary’s church ties and make it a republican college; and to establish a public library system built around science, philosophy, and civics. An ally of Jefferson’s aptly described the ambition of the measures. They “propose a simple and beautiful scheme, whereby science . . . would have been ‘carried to every man’s door,’” he wrote. Emphasizing the need to reach and, through education, change the public, he wrote: “Genius, instead of having to break its way through the thick opposing clouds of native obscurity, indigence, and ignorance, was to be sought for through every family in the commonwealth.” Churches would have been the big losers of this “systematical plan,” but their opposition was not the only reason it failed to materialize. The nature of Southern plantation society did not permit potential alternatives, such as state-run school systems, to planter authority. Slavery was simply more important to American nation-building than secularism. The planters, however, cannot be held uniquely responsible. With notable exceptions, for example the French state education system, secularists generally failed to build institutions that offered alternatives to Christian social, political, and personal morality.