Thomas Jefferson, liberties, and God

“Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” — Thomas Jefferson Memorial

This sentence, inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., was spoken by our 45th president of the United States last Thursday, which he used as a lead-in for his proposal to allow churches to engage in politics:

“Jefferson asked, can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God. Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment”
— Donald Trump, February 2, 2017

First, Jefferson was talking about slavery.

Jefferson was asking, how long can we survive as a country while slavery continues to exist — it being a daily act of tyranny and injustice — and how long can we go without suffering the wrath of God, in the form of a slave revolt where all the slave masters die or are turned into slaves themselves.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is what Jefferson had to say, back in 1781, on a question of proper “manners.” He starts by saying slavery is not good:

“There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it”

[Notes on the State of Virginia. p. 270.]

Maybe you weren’t ready to read Jeffersonian English today, so please allow this short translation:

“Slavery influences us, and our culture, in bad ways. Slavery is always harming both sides: it encourages cruelty on one side and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.”

Jefferson goes on to say that the presence of slavery destroys the morals of people, and that it is near-impossible to avoid its moral destruction — “man must be a prodigy [to] retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances” — that it curses politicians, turns citizens into cruel tyrants, and causes slaves to hate the country they live in.

Continuing, Jefferson observes that this destruction of morals leads to a destruction of “industry,” and that slave owners don’t do any work themselves.

After saying all this, Jefferson lays out his fear, the source of the inscribed quote:

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”

[Notes on the State of Virginia. p. 272. (italics added for emphasis)]

Jefferson is suggesting that God may bring about a reversal of fortunes, and put slaves in charge, as an act of divine justice — and if that were to happen, we’d have no argument against it.

Combining religion and politics

But what does this have to do with freedom of religion, and what would Jefferson say about Trump’s statement, “Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

[Removing the Johnson Amendment, passed by Congress in 1953, would allow churches to participate in politics without losing their 501(c)(3), tax-exempt status.]

Jefferson wrote an answer to this question, and his position is clear: to combine religion and politics is to invite disaster. I will leave you with this excerpt from his writings, from Notes on the State of Virginia, published in the 1780s:

“Is uniformity of opinion desirable? No … Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects [critique the morals of] each other.

“Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

“Let us reflect that [the earth] is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force.

“Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged, and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves.

“But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.

“The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported, of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough, all sufficient to preserve peace and order, or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. [These states] do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions.

“On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbound tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them.

“Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws. It is true, we are as yet secured against them by the spirit of the times. I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity. But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter.

“Our rules will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united.

“From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights.

“The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.”

[Notes on the State of Virginia. p. 267–270.]

The Johnson Amendment has been with us since the Eisenhower administration. It helps us avoid tyrannical laws, and to remove it would invite the shackles that Jefferson wrote about. We must not be victims of the zealot: We must resist, for the safety of our nation.