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George W. Bush, Thomas Jefferson, and religion

July 8th, 2008 - 12:40 pm

My friend Andrew Stuttaford points to a piece at “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” that takes President Bush’s speech writers to task for misrepresenting Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion in a speech the President gave at Monticello on July 4. It was “telling,” the author writes, that Bush’s speech writers “cut out an anti-religious statement from a long and famous quote.” Here’s what Bush said to the assembled multitude:

Thomas Jefferson understood that these rights do not belong to Americans alone. They belong to all mankind. And he looked to the day when all people could secure them. On the 50th anniversary of America’s independence, Thomas Jefferson passed away. But before leaving this world, he explained that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were universal. In one of the final letters of his life, he wrote, “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be — to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all — the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”

Jefferson wrote this in a letter to Roger Weightman. He went on to say that

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

You can almost hear the purr of delighted indignation on the part of the author of this post. “Clearly,” he concludes, such remarks “are best edited out by those who advocate nothing if not monkish ignorance and superstition.”

Leaving aside the question of who it is who advocates “nothing if not monkish ignorance and superstition,” I feel it worth pointing out that Jefferson’s attitude towards religion was not quite so cut and dried–nor so uniformly hostile–as some secularists would have us believe.

Jefferson’s anti-clericalism–it was an unattractive part of his Enlightenment kit–is well known. But if Bush’s speech writer’s omitted a bit about “monkish ignorance,” secularists often quote Jefferson’s brusque dismissal of religion in Notes on the State of Virginia (“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”) But they somehow never get around to quoting the passage that occurs a few pages later: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

As president, as Gertrude Himmelfarb notes in her superb book The Roads to Modernity, Jefferson was even more respectful of religion, and specifically Christianity, as the foundation of liberty and public virtue. On his way to church one Sunday, Jefferson was met by a friend:

“You going to church Mr. J. You do not believe a word in it.”

“Sir [Jefferson replied], no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.”

Perhaps Bush’s speech writers had some such passage in mind.

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