By Tom Van Dyke
At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: “Shall I continue in allegiance to
GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS
Or impiously declare for
JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!!”
Oh, my. And we think we've got it ugly.
But that's what the semi-official Federalist newspaper, The Gazette of the United States, asked in the runup to the 1800 election. True fact.
Now, it was well-suspected, but not commonly known for sure, that Thomas Jefferson held unorthodox views about religion and specifically, Christianity. Turns out, he did.
[Oh, I hate quoting myself, but so many things slip down the memory hole these days...]
As Edward J. Larson points out in his recent book A Magnificent Catastrophe, the election of 1800 came down to the New England Protestant establishment supporting John Adams versus Jefferson's cobbling together of all the rest of the out-crowd.
And Jefferson only won that hair-thin election due to political manipulation of Virginia's elector rules, and perhaps because his chosen VP, Aaron Burr, was the grandson of the New England fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards, Burr comfortably conveying the decisive electoral votes of his home state of New York.
Oh, but we're not quite done yet. Oh, no, not by a long shot...
Because if people hate religion being shoved down their throats, what they hate and fear far more is somebody else's religion used as a tool for political power. By "religion" we mean here not atheist vs. theist, not Christian vs. Mohammedan, not even Protestant vs. Catholic, but Presbyterian vs. Baptist, Quaker or Mennonite! Religion is religion and it gets quite slippery and abstract, but power is power, and it's quite real.
See, President Adams attributed his loss in the 1800 election to putting his presidential seal of approval on a Thanksgiving proclamation, which backed a Presbyterian move, the Presbyterians being the most powerful and politically ambitious sect of Christianity in America. Adams wrote:
"The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has allarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicon prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion."
So, when you read the word "Religion" when the Founders use it, think of what it meant to John Adams, picking through the ashes of his loss to Jefferson in 1800.
Me, I'm pretty sympathetic to the role of "religion" in the public square. But I agree with Adams' analysis of the election of 1800: Faced with the choice for president between a Jehovah's Witness or Thomas S. Monson, the new "president and prophet" of the Mormon Church, or Pat Robertson, or even Pope Benedictus XVI, I meself might go with a suspected atheist, as long as I, you know, didn't know for sure.