Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Religious Freedom

Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America's Creed

John Ragosta
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Religious Freedom
    Book Description:

    For over one hundred years, Thomas Jefferson and his Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom have stood at the center of our understanding of religious liberty and the First Amendment. Jefferson's expansive vision-including his insistence that political freedom and free thought would be at risk if we did not keep government out of the church and church out of government-enjoyed a near consensus of support at the Supreme Court and among historians, until Justice William Rehnquist called reliance on Jefferson "demonstrably incorrect." Since then, Rehnquist's call has been taken up by a bevy of jurists and academics anxious to encourage renewed government involvement with religion.

    InReligious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed,the historian and lawyer John Ragosta offers a vigorous defense of Jefferson's advocacy for a strict separation of church and state. Beginning with a close look at Jefferson's own religious evolution, Ragosta shows that deep religious beliefs were at the heart of Jefferson's views on religious freedom. Basing his analysis on that Jeffersonian vision, Ragosta redefines our understanding of how and why the First Amendment was adopted. He shows how the amendment's focus on maintaining the authority of states to regulate religious freedom demonstrates that a very strict restriction on federal action was intended. Ultimately revealing that the great sage demanded a firm separation of church and state but never sought a wholly secular public square, Ragosta provides a new perspective on Jefferson, the First Amendment, and religious liberty within the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3371-9
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-6)

    The founder of american religious freedom was thomas Jefferson, or so said the conventional wisdom, and the Supreme Court, for most of the twentieth century.

    At one level, perhaps that is not surprising. Jefferson often seems the most tangibly present of America’s Founders. He is quoted more often, reportedly, and referenced more commonly in the blogosphere than any other early American. Political campaigns, from right and left, seek to embrace Jefferson’s wisdom and capture his image on everything from debt reduction, to race relations, to the structure of government. Celebration of our “nation’s birthday” is intimately linked with Jefferson’s most...

    (pp. 7-39)

    Today, almost two hundred years after his death, thomas jefferson’s views on religion and religious freedom continue to occupy the courts and the public. Not only do violent arguments contend with the centrality of Jefferson and his Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom to our understanding of religious liberty, but an almost equally contentious dispute exists on what Jefferson intended by religious freedom. Part of the confusion is generated by a veil that lies over Jefferson’s own religious beliefs, a veil that is not entirely happenstance or the product of historic forgetfulness.

    Jefferson was adamant about not discussing his religious views...

    (pp. 40-73)

    Jefferson’s campaign for religious liberty and the significance of his vision in the development of American religious freedom can be best understood on the stage on which his views and commitment to religious liberty developed. In particular, an understanding of the role of religious dissent in early Virginia is essential. Not only did discrimination against and persecution of dissenters (primarily Presbyterians and Baptists) provide the backdrop on which Jefferson acted, but their political support was to prove essential in the fight for religious freedom, giving their views unusual significance in understanding that freedom.

    Colonial Virginia had an established church. Equally...

    (pp. 74-100)

    With the american victory at yorktown in 1781, the need for mobilization quickly evaporated. So, too, evaporated the solicitousness of Virginia’s Establishment leaders for religious dissenters. In the immediate postwar years, petitions from Presbyterians and Baptists asking for an end to the vestiges of religious discrimination continued to arrive in Richmond, but, given the change in circumstances, they fell largely on deaf ears. In fact, with the war won, Virginia’s Anglican leaders, clergy and laity, saw an opportunity to retrench and strengthen their troubled church (the “Episcopal Church of Virginia” after 1784) with renewed government assistance. The primary means for...

  8. 4 THE FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION: A Jeffersonian Compromise
    (pp. 101-131)

    While jefferson’s statute was well received as a statement of principle both at home and abroad, the reality in the 1780s was that twelve of the thirteen states had some form of official establishment and/or religious test oath for holding office or voting. While incremental changes were afoot in some new states, the status quo had considerable vitality.

    In the years immediately following adoption of the Statute, the national political landscape was dominated by the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution. With the Constitution now having achieved status as legal and cultural scripture, it is difficult to appreciate fully...

    (pp. 132-168)

    Jefferson and madison were well aware that the battle for the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom and the First Amendment did not end the battle for religious liberty in America. Since the First Amendment applied only to federal action, it had limited direct application in the nineteenth century, an era of relatively narrow federal regulation and a relatively small federal government. While all of the states claimed to protect freedom of conscience in their own way, how they applied that right often fell far short of the Jeffersonian vision, especially in the area of separation of church and state....

  10. 6 FEDERAL CONTROL: Jefferson’s Vision in Our Times
    (pp. 169-208)

    Religious liberty and jefferson’s and madison’s views on the same were active topics in the political discourse in the states throughout the nineteenth century. On the other hand, after adoption of the First Amendment, applicable only to the federal government, its religion clauses appeared to slumber judicially for the better part of 150 years. This was not entirely unexpected; most relevant treatment of religion and religious freedom occurred at the state level and was not directly affected by the First Amendment. It was not until 1940, inCantwell v. Connecticut,that the Supreme Court concluded that the First Amendment’s protection...

    (pp. 209-222)

    There is a certain incongruity in the effort to seek jefferson’s views in the midst of modern controversy. After all, Jefferson was adamant that the world is for the living; he was so insistent upon this that he would have had each generation draft its own constitution. Jefferson would advise that a fixation on the Founders’ views is fundamentally misguided.

    Religious liberty, though, was different for Jefferson; protecting religious freedom was essential to both reason and republicanism. It was a natural right. Understanding its source, and the Founders’ passion for its protection, speaks to that fundamental nature. This must explain,...

  12. Documentary Appendix
    (pp. 223-234)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 235-270)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-286)
  15. Index
    (pp. 287-294)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 295-296)