* Forwarded from "icgal"
* Originally by Bob Sillyheimer
* Originally to All
* Originally dated 14 Sep 1994, 10:13
Jefferson vs. the Religious Right
by Isaac Kramnick [NYTimes 29 Aug 94],
ITHACA, N.Y. As the religious right flexes its muscles, even
moderate politicians find themselves under harsh attack for
their stands on seemingly nonreligious issues such as health
care and welfare reform. But assaults by Christians on American
leaders as enemies of Christianity are nothing new.
In 1787, when the Framers excluded all mention of God from
the Constitution, they were widely denounced as immoral and the
document was denounced as godless, which is precisely what it is.
Its opponents challenged ratifying conventions in nearly
every state, drawing special attention to the stipulation in
Article VI, Section 3: "No religious test shall be required as a
Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United
An anti-Federalist in North Carolina wrote: "The exclusion of
religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. . .
. Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain office among us."
Amos Singletary of Massachusetts, one of the most outspoken
critics of the Constitution, joined in with the affirmation that
though he "hoped to see Christians [in power], yet by the
Constitution, a papist or an infidel was as eligible as they."
For another North Carolinian, David Caldwell, the prohibition
of religious tests "constituted an invitation for Jews and
Pagans of every kind to come among us." He added that since
Christianity was the best religion for producing "good members
of society. . . those gentlemen who formed this Constitution
should not have given this invitation to Jews and Heathens."
Although the Christian assault on the Constitution failed,
the campaign to Christianize American politics continued. Many
states adopted religious tests as mandatory for public
officials. Some of these laws stayed on the books (although
rarely enforced) until the mid-20th century.
Attacks on godless officials were familiar in every epoch.
Probably the most notable target was Thomas Jefferson, the
source of the principle of the wall of separation between church
and state. Jefferson, like Benjamin Franklin, was deeply
suspicious of religion and of clergy wielding political power.
He wrote of an unholy triumvirate of people's enemies: "Kings,
nobles or priests."
Jefferson helped create the Virginia Statute for Religious
Freedom in 1786, incurring the wrath of pious Christians by his
fervent defense of toleration of atheists: "The legitimate
powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious
to others, but it does no injury for my neighbor to say there
are 20 Gods or no God. It neither picks my pockets nor breaks my
When Jefferson ran for President in 1800, the full fury of
the Christian clergy was unleashed on him. They alleged that as
Ambassador to France, he had been a close friend of
anti-Christian worshippers of reason who had brought on the
horrors of the French Revolution. So furious were the attacks
that Jefferson sat out the election campaign in the seclusion of
his beloved Monticello.
Jefferson's good friend, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin
Rush, kept him well informed of election news. Many clergymen in
Philadelphia, Rush noted in one letter, had preached the
previous Sunday that a vote for Jefferson was a vote for
godless, Jacobin leveling.
An angry Jeffcrson, having no recourse to TV talk shows, sent
his reply to the clerics in a letter to Rush. That letter
contained a declaration that is today literally engraved in
stone. It graces the base of the rotunda of the Jefferson
Memorial in Washington: I have sworn upon the altar of God,
eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of
Most tourists who look up at those stirring words probably
assume they refer to tyrants like George III or Louis XVI. How
relevant for our contemporary debate over church and state to
recall that Jefferson was actually referring to the Christian
clergy in the city where American independence was born.
Isaac Kramnick is professor of government at Cornell University.