I’ve probably linked to Radley Balko’s blog more than anyone else over the last couple years. I don’t recall ever posting anything disagreeing with him in that time, though I’m sure we have our disagreements on issues. I say this only to establish that this is a guy I have great respect for; his blog is right at the top of the list of blogs I read at least once a day. But I’m afraid I have to correct him for statements made in this post about Thomas Jefferson. I agree with almost everything he says in the post, but this statement is not accurate:
Where to begin? How about the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the very Declaration of Independence Medved cites, was at most a deist, and likely an agnostic? Jefferson — who even Medved euphemistically acknowledges in the same post was a “religious non-conformist” — had doubts about Christian faith in the supernatural that would probably make him damn-near unelectable today, certainly in Medved’s view.
It’s certainly true that, if Jefferson’s views were known today, he would be unelectable; indeed, if his views had been known then, he might well have been unelectable (he said very little about religion publicly and swore his friends to secrecy about his genuine views out of concern for his political viability, and was still routinely accused of atheism, the equivalent of being called a Satanist today). However, the statement that Jefferson was “likely an agnostic” simply cannot be supported. And the reason why ties in with this statement from Balko’s article:
Yes, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others publicly made references and invocations to God. I’d guess that’s because they understood that the best way to get a nation of Calivinists to take up arms against the King was to convince them that God was on their side.
In reality, Jefferson, unlike the others, said very little about religion publicly. While Washington, Adams and Madison all issued non-coercive declarations of thanksgiving, days of fasting and so forth (something Madison later regretted doing and considered unconstitutional, while Washington and Adams argued that such declarations were important for maintaining public virtue), Jefferson notoriously refused to issue such statements and rarely referred to religion at all in his public statements and writings.
However, this is hardly evidence for the claim that Jefferson was “likely an agnostic.” His private writings are full of statements that show a firm belief in God. Not the Christian god, of course; like the other founders, he rejected most of what the Bible said about God. In all of the famous letters he exchanged with John Adams over the last 14 years of their lives, both men indicate time and again that while they rejected much of the Biblical conception of God (particularly trinitarianism and the divinity of Jesus) they both also firmly believed in a personal, provident creator.
It’s possible to dismiss public statements of religious belief as insincere and intended to mollify a religious publi and maintain one’s political viabilityc; it’s not reasonable to dismiss private statements for that reason, especially when those statements appear in letters full of other information that would damage them politically if it was revealed. That Jefferson strongly believed in a personal, provident, intervening God (though, again, not the Biblical version) is simply beyond all reasonable doubt for anyone who has read the innumerable statements he made on the subject in his private writings. And I think it’s important that we not distort what these men believed, especially if we are going to criticize the religious right for doing so (and they certainly do so often).