The Christian origins of US religious freedom

Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (2013), historian and lawyer John Ragosta legitimately credits Jefferson for his ideological, political and religious commitment to freedom of religion.

August 6, 2016 21:30
4 minute read.
THE THOMAS Jefferson Memorial in Washington. He built a legacy of religious freedom

THE THOMAS Jefferson Memorial in Washington. He built a legacy of religious freedom.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The origins of religious freedom in America – as well as a wall of separation between church and state – were ideas deeply held by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

While the small Jewish population of the early United States, numbering 2,000 out of two million, were among the beneficiaries of Jefferson’s ideology, it would be dishonest to ignore the reality that these freedoms emerged in a Christian context in the colonial period.

In Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (2013), historian and lawyer John Ragosta legitimately credits Jefferson for his ideological, political and religious commitment to freedom of religion. Yet, at the same time, he provides the context in which Jefferson developed his ideas. Jefferson’s first test in promoting the negation of one church being sanctioned by the state was in Virginia.

The colony had a long history of domination by the Anglican Church, a monopoly that Virginia’s government promoted and that placed Presbyterians and Baptists at a distinct disadvantage. The controversy that eventually led Jefferson to grant religious equality in Virginia and later to champion the First Amendment was quite practical and had little to do with any Jews living in America. To understand religious freedom in the US is to understand the dynamic of Protestant Christian denominations in early America.

The established church of Colonial Virginia was the Anglican Church. The Church of England, according to Ragosta, “was strong and growing, increasing its already impressive power.” The discrimination against Dissenters, primarily Presbyterians and Baptists, “framed Jefferson’s deep concern” and ultimately played a critical role in his drafting and promoting legislation granting religious freedom in Virginia.

These efforts later served as a model for the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

Dissenting ministers faced fines, discrimination, social ostracism and even physical abuse in Virginia.

But as the years before the American Revolution progressed, it was clear to Virginia’s political leadership that the Baptists and Presbyterians demographically dominated certain areas of the colony and would be needed to fight the war against England. Dissenters, by 1776, accounted for a third or more of Virginia’s population and could not be ignored.

While the Virginia House of Burgesses did not drop all the restrictions against the Dissenters as Jefferson wished, restrictions on Presbyterians and Baptists were eased to encourage their mobilization against George III. While Jefferson’s ideology and idealism were critical for the eventual abolishing of the Anglican monopoly in Virginia, the roots of his politics dealt with very practical issues in fighting the Revolution and ending tensions between Protestant denominations.

The Jews, while serving in the Continental Army and providing financial support for the cause, were not the major players in Jefferson’s plans to separate church from state.

After the war ended, the need for mobilizing Baptists and Presbyterians in Virginia evaporated and, according to historian Ragosta, “so too evaporated the solicitousness of Virginia’s Establishment leaders for religious dissenters.” But this time the Church of England (called the “Episcopal Church of Virginia” after 1784) would have to face both Jefferson and James Madison. In 1779 Thomas Jefferson framed legislation in his state that would end an established church in Virginia and grant religious freedom to all.

The Virginia Act of 1785 states: “That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened, in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

This was the model for The First Amendment. Later, champions of Jewish emancipation in France looked back to Jefferson’s genius as a model. Unlike America, however, the issue of granting Jews citizenship and equality was center stage in the debates between those who supported Jewish emancipation in France and those who did not. This was not the case in the New World.

Jefferson’s intent was never to secularize America. He wanted to protect religion from being corrupted by the authority of the state. His experiences in Virginia were a lesson of what could happen when religion was married to the power of the state. This led to abuses that violated freedom of belief and freedom of conscience.

While both Dissenters and Jews benefited from the newfound freedom that Jefferson championed, the practical dynamic of the granting of that freedom in Virginia and in federal law was not rooted in a Jewish crisis but in a Protestant one.

Jews were supporters of Jefferson more than 200 years ago and American Jews today can proudly look back at Jefferson’s Virginia as a milestone in both Jewish and American history. But the origins of the First Amendment are rooted in denominational strife in the Protestant realm and the realities of fighting a revolution. To claim otherwise

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