by Avery Cardinal Dulles
From First Things, January 2005:
In his public pronouncements as a statesman and legislator, Jefferson expressed what he considered to belong to the common and public core of religion. He kept his more personal opinions to himself, refraining from putting them in any writing that might find its way into print, but he occasionally penned confidential memoranda for himself and a few friends.
Jefferson’s public religion appears in the Declaration of Independence, which refers to “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” to “inalienable” rights conferred upon all human beings by their Creator, and to “the protection of divine Providence.” In his first inaugural address, in 1801, Jefferson spoke of how the American people were “enlightened by a benign religion, professed indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and love of man, acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence.” In his second inaugural, four years later, he emphasized the nation’s need for the favor and enlightenment of Providence and asked his hearers to unite with him in supplication to “that Being in whose hands we are.”
One of Jefferson’s firmest principles, as we know, was that of religious freedom. In 1777, as a legislator, he composed what later became the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which embodies his personal conviction that the government should exercise no coercion in religious matters. In his famous letter of 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association he referred to the “wall of separation between Church and State”—a term that had previously been used by the Baptist Roger Williams. But as we have seen, he did not hesitate to bring religion into his public pronouncements. As President he frequently attended religious services in Congress. While opposing a federal religious establishment, “he personally encouraged and symbolically supported religion by attending public church services in the Capitol,” as Daniel Driesbach has written.
Like his contemporaries Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison, Jefferson was convinced that the republic could not stand without a high level of public morality, and that moral behavior could not survive in the absence of divine authority as its sanction. Obedience to the teachings of Jesus and reflection on the purity of Jesus’ life could enable people to overcome their selfishness and parochialism.
Jefferson’s friend Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) maintained that the authentic teachings of Jesus were vastly superior to those of Socrates or any other pagan but that they had been overlaid by a thick cover of legend and mythology, which must be stripped away for the truth to shine forth in its pristine brilliance. Priestley’s work made a deep impression on Jefferson and enabled him to regard himself as a Christian. Following in Priestley’s footsteps, Jefferson undertook to retrieve the true teachings of Jesus, especially in matters of morals. To this end he made two compilations of texts concerning Jesus from the New Testament. The first, entitled The Philosophy of Jesus, was completed in 1804 but has been lost. The second, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus, is usually known as the Jefferson Bible. It was composed in his later years and published only after his death. Omitting all references to the miraculous and the supernatural, Jefferson selected what he took to be authentic sayings of Jesus as a moral teacher. The precepts of the Nazarene, he asserted, were “the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man.” The religion of Jesus, he believed, was so simple that it could be understood by a child, but the writers of the New Testament, especially Paul, overlaid it with mythology derived from Platonist sources. The sage of Monticello forthrightly dismissed dogmas such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, which he found unintelligible.
Jefferson’s religion, however, was not purely philosophical. For a living religion, he knew, scope must be given to the inclinations of the heart. He was enraptured by the beauty of the Psalms, which in his opinion surpassed all the hymnists of every language and of every time, including the hymn of Cleanthes to Jupiter so much admired by his friend John Adams. When he attended church services as an old man, the sounds of familiar hymns would bring tears to his eyes.
In his plan of studies for the University of Virginia Jefferson wanted natural religion to be taught to the exclusion of all doctrine attributed to revelation. But he knew that religion could not be purely academic and therefore recognized the importance of worship in the churches. He took pride in the fact that students at his university had opportunities to worship in Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist services in the sanctuary at Charlottesville. Interdenominational competition, he believed, was the best protection against fanaticism. In matters of religion the aphorism “united we stand, divided we fall” had to be reversed. Divided we stand, he said, but united we fall.
In summary, then, Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death, but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God.
Jefferson’s religion is fairly typical of the American form of deism in his day. [...]
In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, deism in the United States, as elsewhere, seemed to be sweeping everything before it. But early in the nineteenth century, the deist tide began to recede. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a significant revival of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. The preachers of the second Great Awakening were especially successful in rural America, where they aroused a highly emotional biblically based religion. While Unitarianism survived and even experienced some growth in New England, it lost its specifically deist features: the sharp dichotomy between faith and reason, the deductivist natural theology, the separation between God and the world, and the idea of Jesus as teacher of the natural law. Deism therefore may be said to have perished, not only in the United States but also in England, France, and Germany.
We can discern several reasons why deism, which once looked so promising, proved unable to sustain itself. Deism drew its vitality from the oppressive policies of the religious establishments against which it was reacting. In the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers, confessional religion, unless checked by law or by free competition, led inevitably to tyranny and persecution. But this assumption was based on a time-conditioned union or alliance between throne and altar, not on the gospel of Christ, which gave Caesar no authority over the things of God.
Jefferson himself came gradually to this realization. As a young adult he seems to have held that Christian faith was favorable to despotism and hostile to free society. But his friend Benjamin Rush convinced him that Christianity and republicanism were, so to speak, made for each other. As Eugene Sheridan has written, Rush regarded Christianity as “part of a divine plan to bring about the kingdom of God on earth by freeing mankind from the burden of royal and ecclesiastical oppression through the spread of the principles of human equality and Christian charity.” With Rush’s help Jefferson found a way of accepting Christianity without diminishing his commitment to the freedom of conscience. Deism, therefore, was not necessary to offset religious oppression.
By the middle of the twentieth century the major branches of Christianity accepted the principle of religious freedom not as a reluctant concession but as a requirement of the gospel itself. The Catholic Church in its “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (Dignitatis Humanae) teaches that the gospel itself demands that “in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded.” A major factor in the rise of deism has therefore ceased to exist.
Although deism portrayed itself as a pure product of unaided reason, it was not what it claimed to be. Its basic tenets concerning God, the virtuous life, and rewards beyond the grave were in fact derived from Christianity, the faith in which the deists themselves had been reared. It is doubtful whether anyone who had not been brought up in a biblical religion could embrace the tenets of deism. The children of deists rarely persevered in the faith of their parents.
[HT: The Brothers Judd blog. The opinions above are of the late Cardinal Dulles [bio here], but are cordial enough to my own for me to post them.---TVD]