Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a secularist, as he’s often portrayed, but an active supporter of religion who funded efforts by the federal government to spread Christianity.
“Separation of church and state” had a different meaning in his time.
And the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was always “pro-Jesus, pro-Christian, pro-religion.”
That was the message historian and author David Barton brought to a fast-paced and wide-ranging interview with Gina Loudon on her show, “America Trends.”
Barton, author of “The Jefferson Lies,” unveiled surprising truths about the hidden history and common misconceptions surrounding the nation’s third president.
Barton, whom Loudon called the “foremost expert on Jefferson,” explained Jefferson was not the “deist” he is often portrayed as by secularist revisionists.
“Jefferson was definitely not a deist, not even close to it,” Barton said. “Part of the problem we have today is that our definition of deist is not even close to what it was in that day. The definition of deist today, the synonyms in the dictionary, say akin to atheist, agnostic. Nowhere close to that. Jefferson said very clearly late in life he could never be an atheist.”
Barton argued Jefferson did not believe in the “clockmaker god” who simply wound up the universe and didn’t intervene in human affairs. At the same time, Barton explained, Jefferson was not a follower of conventional orthodox Christian belief, especially late in his life.
Yet despite these doctrinal departures, Barton claimed “there never was a time when he was not pro-Jesus, pro-Christian or pro-religion.”
Jefferson questioned whether certain Scriptures were inspired and even the divine nature of Christ. However, Barton explained Jefferson never was a secularist and promoted organized religion in the new republic.
“It is interesting that through 1876 the largest church in the United States was the one that met inside the U.S. Capitol, something that Jefferson helped start,” Barton said. “He attended that church for eight years as president, he attended before that as vice president. He helped get it started as secretary of state under George Washington. So throughout his public career he was very public about helping religion.”
Barton told Loudon that Jefferson’s involvement with religion wasn’t limited to simply attending services in the Capitol.
“As president, he took federal funds to fund missionaries to Indian groups,” Jefferson said. “He helped fund Christian schools. He helped fund a lot of things, including Christian churches in the United States seat of government, Washington, D.C., not only in the Capitol but in the Treasury Building and the War Department. Nothing about Jefferson says secularist in any way, shape or form, although some of his doctrines from a Christian standpoint would be fairly heterodox.”
Loudon noted that Jefferson’s belief in the “separation of church and state” is sometimes used against any attempt to honor religion in the public square. Barton said the secularist understanding of “separation of church and state” was different than the modern conception.
“Separation of church and state is a really good thing if you define it right,” Barton said. “The way Jefferson defined it is exactly right. Where you have a state-established church, you do not have freedom of conscience; you do not have religious toleration. You have religious coercion.”
The Founding Fathers, Barton explained, were deeply affected by the British experience with a state church.
“We came out of a system with Great Britain where they had a state established church, and if you were on the outside of that looking in you’ve got serious problems,” Barton said. “You’re facing jail time, sometimes penalties. America was populated by people who had been nailed because they weren’t part of the state-established church.”
Thus, Barton told Loudon, Jefferson’s advocacy of the “separation of church and state” wasn’t about banishing religion from the public square but making sure the federal government did not establish a church.
Barton said Jefferson saw firsthand how Christians who did not belong to the Anglican state church in his native Virginia suffered legal penalties. For that reason, Barton argued, Jefferson wanted to make sure nothing similar was created in the new republic.
“When he called for separation of church and state, it was the denominational separation,” said Barton. “He wanted free exercise of religion. You choose your denomination, if at all, but the government can’t tell you what denomination to be a part of.”
The phrase “separation of church and state” was used by Jefferson in a famous letter to a Baptist congregation in Connecticut. Barton told Loudon this was an assurance by Jefferson to the Baptists that there would be no national established church, thus giving the Baptists religious freedom.
But as Barton observed, “That’s not what it means today.”
The historian argued that expressions of religious belief should be permitted in the public square, and he bemoaned secularist efforts to remove recognition of religion on currency and in courtrooms.
“Why is religious speech not free speech?” asked Barton. “We allow all sorts of free speech on state property. Why is it no longer free speech if it’s religious speech?”
According to the original intent of the Constitution, Barton argued, expressions such as “In God We Trust” on coins are permissible because no official denomination or state church is being established.
Barton also dismissed secularist claims of creeping theocracy.
“That means they don’t know what the word theocratic means, because as long as you have free elections, you cannot be theocratic,” Barton said. “Theocratic means you are ruled by an elite that hears from God and acts on behalf of the people.
“We’re big into people choosing their own leaders. If they choose leaders of faith and follow the Constitution, there’s no chance of them being theocrats. So what [secularists] do is they use these pejoratives, these ad hominems to accuse us of theocracy. I, for one, never am and never will be, because I’ll always be for the people choosing their leaders as designed by the Constitution. Which is inherently opposed to theocracy.”
However, Barton acknowledged theocracy is a real threat to the world. And he told Loudon the threat is coming from a source many leftists don’t want to confront – the religion of Islam.
“If you look at Iran, it certainly is [a theocracy],” said Barton. “If you look at where the Muslim Brotherhood has had great influence, it certainly is. And that has been a problem.”
But Barton said that as unlikely as it seems, it’s Thomas Jefferson himself who can serve as a model for how to respond to the challenge of radical Islam.
“It was Jefferson who fought the first war on terror,” said Barton. “Jefferson never believed [Islam] was a religion of peace. He did not believe we should fight terrorism by drawing back from it but by confronting it. Exactly the opposite of what we do today.”
See the interview: