Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Scherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought.
Our first response comes from John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped to Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Asked for a comment on Arthur Scherr’s analysis of Thomas Jefferson, Christianity, morality, and an afterlife, I am a bit ambivalent.
Scherr is deeply concerned with misinformation from the “religious right” suggesting that Thomas Jefferson was not really devoted to a strict separation of church and state or that he was a devout Christian (and the possible implications of such misinformation to constitutional debate and policy – although he studiously ignores those issues).
Scherr is on strong ground here. He points out many problems with the understanding of Jefferson promoted by David Barton, Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, and Charles Sanford and the occasional excess of Edward Gaustad. Those corrections need not be rehearsed here; Scherr covers many well and there is a voluminous literature on the topic.
Exploring that literature, including works by Michael Myerson, Johann Neem, or my own work,1 would have added considerable primary and secondary sources as well as depth to his argument. He might, for example, have looked to other sources for James Madison’s response to the limitation of the First Amendment to the federal government (a plea that the states adopt its principles) or to the manner in which Jefferson’s beliefs matured over time. His brief dismissal of the good work by Warren Throckmorton and Michael L. Couter as being from the “public field” is also misplaced.
Yet, the article potentially raises more problems than it solves. Scherr’s treatment of the question of Jefferson’s belief in an afterlife is emblematic. He entitles the relevant section, appropriately enough, “Jefferson’s Doubts About the Afterlife,” but concludes that Jefferson’s “only concept of ‘afterlife’ was the end of life: death” (108). (Compare 82 – “probably considered belief in the afterlife puerile.”) This is far from clear, especially as Jefferson grew older, and Scherr’s own citations and quotes demonstrate Jefferson’s lack of certainty. As Neem explains, the empirical Jefferson “could never convince himself” of an afterlife, but “express[ed] hope.”
Reading the entire Jefferson and John Adams correspondence, one might reasonably argue even more strongly. Certainly Jefferson’s materialism is not dispositive as he always believed that God (or, to him, “god”) could enervate matter. (Compare Scherr: materialism “implicitly denying Christianity’s belief in the afterlife,” 104.) More generally, one should not expect more than human certainty from a Founder.
Scherr’s criticisms of a number of historians is also excessive. For example, Peter Onuf’s comments on Jefferson’s support of evangelical church polities and “democratic theology” (107), is hardly to say that Jefferson endorsed evangelical dogma. In fact, Scherr ignores Jefferson’s statement that Christianity is the best religion for a republic (largely for the reasons that Onuf explains). (Compare Scherr’s treatment of Eva S. Wolf’s metaphorical comment about “election[s]” in a republic, 107.)
More seriously, Scherr runs perilously close to endorsing a false dichotomy between a Christian evangelical Jefferson and an agnostic or atheist one. He says dismissively that Jefferson’s inaugural included “pro forma thanks to a creator,” and follows that with a “however” the inaugural supported religious liberty (67), as if the two were inconsistent – an argument made (implicitly) against Jefferson that deeply angered him. With some bitterness, he wrote Margaret Bayard Smith in 1816 of the jibes he suffered from “the priests:” “They wished him to be thought Atheist, Deist, or Devil, who could advocate freedom from their religious dictations.”
Evidence of Jefferson’s sincere and deep belief in a god is overwhelming. To snipe that, when praying in both of his inaugurals, Jefferson “may have only uttered these platitudes with reluctance” (68), is, at best, speculative and inconsistent with Jefferson’s other actions and letters. To say later that Jefferson “lent a tacit approval to atheism” by attacking Calvin and corruptions of Christianity that suggest revelation is necessary to find a god (93), is to give the entirely wrong impression. (As Scherr notes, it was in this context that Jefferson calls Calvin an “Atheist, which I can never be.”)
My criticisms are not meant to undermine the primary point of this article, which is correct and timely. Yet, by giving the wrong impression about Jefferson’s deep religiosity and, most especially, overstating Jefferson’s objections, one risks not only confusion but gives those to whom Scherr is addressing his arguments too much ammunition.
I will end with Scherr’s final words: “Were Jefferson alive, he would probably say, contrary to the claims of the Religious Right and its scholarly adherents, who fecklessly attempt to depict him as a man of devout Christian faith, ‘let the wall of separation stand.’” (109).