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A Conversation With Thomas Jefferson
by Dennis Campbell
12 December 2003Thomas Jefferson

Mr. Jefferson, did you mean that no religious expression be allowed at any level of government, or that the federal government has no authority over the exercise of religion?

In light of the remarkable events and changes that have overtaken America, it seemed appropriate to solicit the views of one of America’s greatest men and the author of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He was kind enough to grant a few moments of time.

Thank you for visiting with us, Mr. Jefferson. Your sentiments expressed in your letter to the Danbury Baptists (who were chafing at government interference in their religious activities) regarding a wall of separation between church and state have created considerable controversy today.

Did you mean that no religious expression be allowed at any level of government, or that the federal government has no authority over the exercise of religion? Your letter was a bit confusing, since as governor of Virginia you signed a number of religiously oriented proclamations. Would you elaborate?

In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the power of the federal government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.

How would this apply to the recent situation in which the state of Alabama was enjoined by the federal government from displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments in the state courthouse?

I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling in religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the General Government.

In your opinion, then, should this have been a matter left solely to the state Alabama and its citizens?

It must rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.

Increasingly, American citizens are forbidden to express religious views while in civil government or public education. In light of the comments you just made, do you consider this proper?

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. In neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Mr. Jefferson, is the increasing activism of our federal judiciary, not only to interpret law but also to actually make law, dangerous to our liberty?

It has long…been my opinion, and I have never shrunk from its expression...that the germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal Judiciary...working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped.

Many today complain that the judiciary has unconstitutionally intruded into matters of religion and its exercise in the public square. What is your opinion of this?

To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.

A goodly number of citizens are compelled to pay for the expression of political opinions with which they disagree -- for example, in labor unions and through National Public Radio, which is supported by taxes. Is this acceptable?

To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness.

Thank you for your courtesy, Mr. Jefferson. Do you have any final word for us?

Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.

Dennis Campbell is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to Internet and print publications

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