Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Disagreeing with Balko

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).


  1. #1 Russell
    February 20, 2007

    People sometimes struggle to put a name on Jefferson’s beliefs. Deists are supposed to believe in a clockwork god, not a personal one. It occurs to me, though, that there are millions today with beliefs not dissimilar to Jefferson’s. They are the “new agers” who believe in a beneficent higher power, though not one attached to any doctrinal religion. TJ: the original new ager.


  2. #2 David Durant
    February 20, 2007

    My lack of historical knowledge leads to confusion…

    If so many of the founders were Deists and the Founding Fathers came from a wide variety of persecuted groups how has the US ended up in a situation where such a small number of mostly extremely Biblical-interpretative sects now hold such a powerful sway over most of the populous?

    I don’t know the average religious breakdown of the US population as a whole at the time of Washington, etc. Were they really radical for their Deist beliefs and, if so, how did they end up with so much power and influence?

  3. #3 Jon Rowe
    February 20, 2007

    “They are the “new agers” who believe in a beneficent higher power,”

    I don’t even think we have to call them “new agers,” most nominal Christians who believe that there is a God, He wants people to do good, and that good people go to Heaven when they die, believe in something very similar to what Jefferson and the other key Founders believed. There was a great article in World or Christianity Today about how millions of young people and nominal Christians believe in this system which, according to them, cannot be called “Christianity.” They termed it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and called it the “new American religion.” B/n my readings of Jefferson et al. there was nothing new about it.


  4. #4 Jon Rowe
    February 20, 2007

    “I don’t know the average religious breakdown of the US population as a whole at the time of Washington, etc. Were they really radical for their Deist beliefs and, if so, how did they end up with so much power and influence?”

    Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin were not radical deists. Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen were. They held to a more moderate unitarian position. But since they disbelieved in the tenets of orthodoxy (the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, plenary inspiration of Scripture), such a system was still deemed “infidelity” to Christianity, even though it was more moderate than the deism of Paine.

    They got power holding beliefs that differed from the majority in the same way that the elite today have power — by being part of the elite. If you have an Ivy League law degree and are interested in politics, you 1) probably have views on life that differ from the average Joe six-pack, and 2) have a much greater chance of being put into a position of power where you can effect public policy.

    Sometimes it boggles my mind how today people with brains have so much power via the ability to spread their ideas and the average Joe neither knows nor cares about this dynamic. Most of my students couldn’t name any Supreme Court Justice when they first come into my class and have no clue who Robbie George or Pete Singer from Princeton are (I teach about 15-20 minutes away from Princeton). When George puts on his James Madison seminars (free to the public), if a mid sized Princeton room gets half full, it’s a good turn out. Yet, George is on a first name basis with President Bush, is part of his ethics council and has tremendous power, through his ideas to influence public policy. Perhaps George is not the best example because he is probably far more conservative than the average Joe, where a typical member of the elite is far more socially liberal.

    Back during the Founding era, it was the elite Whigs who called the tune. And they possessed a predictable set of views which, in some areas of life — like religion — differed from mainstream thought.

  5. #5 Poly
    February 20, 2007


    Although one can concede that Jefferson was a “deist”, the term has to be understood in its context of the time. It would be more accurate to say the Jefferson personally believed in a form of natural religion. It should also be pointed out that Jefferson had only the greatest admiration for John Locke, who had no problem reconciling a personal rationalist Anglicanism with his political philosophy.

    However, all that is more or less irrelevent, as Jefferson would himself be the first to maintain. And that, I think, is Jefferson’s importance to us today.

    His famous “wall of separation” analogy very much sums up his position – religion should not be a factor in governance, either institutionally or personally.

    Separation of religion and public policy was not an abstract right to be argued for or against, but a natural necessity to permit the proper operation of government. According to Jefferson, one should be able to assert the corrrectness of a policy by appealing to reason and to natural law as expressed in natural rights, no matter what one’s religious beliefs might be.

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 20, 2007

    and was still routinely accused of atheism, the equivalent of being called a Satanist today

    Sadly, a great many Americans today could not differentiate between the two categories.

  7. #7 Russell
    February 20, 2007

    David Durant asks:

    How has the US ended up in a situation where such a small number of mostly extremely Biblical-interpretative sects now hold such a powerful sway..?

    The relevant phenomena are the waves of religiosity that periodically sweep this nation. The second such occurred a couple of decades after the Constitution was written, and was called the second “Great Awakening.” One interesting difference between the religious right then, and the religious right now, is that the former recognized the Constitution as a secular document, and roundly condemned it for that. Today, that would be politically futile, so most of the religious right tries to pretend that the Constitution is a Christian document.

  8. #8 David Durant
    February 20, 2007

    Russel, Jon – thanks very much. History, alas, was never my strong point.

    > Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin were not > radical deists. Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen were.

    The only one of those I have learned about in any depth is Paine who, I like to think, if he had grown up today would in fact be an Atheist rather than a Deist (it being unthinkable to be an Atheist at the time).

    What do people think?

  9. #9 DuWayne
    February 20, 2007

    David Durant –

    It is really hard to say. The problem with such notions, is that things are so very different today, than they were then. Aside from our understanding of science, we also have two hundred years of increasing religious freedom, given us, by the very men we are discussing. Religious freedom that is at least, partly responsible for the way science has been allowed to flourish.

    All things being equal, I imagine he might have been, but he ultimately wouldn’t be the same man that he was, in very many regards, if any. The notions he wrote about then, would be far from radical today. In fact, they would probably not have garnered much notice. He certainly wouldn’t have gone to prison for them. Hell, his very upbringing would have been vastly different.

    I geuss I just don’t think, were he alive today, that Thomas Paine, would be Thomas Paine. The same could be said of any of our founding fathers.

  10. #10 David Durant
    February 20, 2007

    DuWayne – Good points well made.

    Who would people nominate for current-era philosophical / ethical radicals who stand out in the way Paine did in his day but will seem obvious with 20/20 vision in the future… :-)

  11. #11 DuWayne
    February 20, 2007

    I also think it should be noted, when considering Paine’s beliefs, that he had immense respect for God. So much so, that he felt it the height of human arrogance, to think that God would feel compelled to offer some divine revelation – aside from the stunning beauty and grandeur of the natural world. He felt that claims of divine revelation sullied the greatness of what God revealed in the world around us.

    I should also note that my understanding of Paine’s beliefs could be off base. I would be far from the first person to mischareterize his position. That is just what I got out of The Age of Reason, which I have only read once – and that fairly recently. I have yet to reflect on it enough to reread it – which I certainly plan on doing.

  12. #12 Prup aka Jim Benton
    February 20, 2007

    David Durant:
    One thing people don’t realize is how unusual the Dubya era has been in American History. The fact is that for most of the previous period, a President’s religion was seen as unimportant to his politics, in fact, the consternation over Kennedy was, to a large part, fueled by a fear — stoked by anti-Catholicism, certainly — that he WOULD let his religion be a factor in his governance. (Partial exceptions were Hayes, whose wife’s religiosity had him bar alcohol from the White House, giving her the name “Lemonade Lucy”, Wilson, whose Calvinism seems to have been a major factor in his somewhat difficult temprament, and Carter — even Garfield, who was, in fact a minister, did not seem to have let this affect his actions in his brief Presidential and previous Congressional careers.)
    In fact, with the partial exception of the second Klan — which was a form of ‘militant Protestantism — previous religious incursions into politics were issue-oriented rather than power/office-oriented. And in many cases the religious side was the populist/progressive side — abolition, civil rights, workingman’s rights, even women’s suffrage all had substantial backing, particularly from the ancestors of today’s evangelical movements, though there are substantial exceptions. (But even prohibition was seen as a progressive issue, a protection for the working man, and creationism was, for many proponents, especially Bryan, a ‘populist’ issue, pitting the ‘will of the people’ against a ‘scientific elite.’ Of course, little can be said for nativism or some of the extreme anti-Communism of the Cold War Era.)
    We see Bryan through the lens of the Scopes trial, and forget that, as a Candidate he might have been, for his time, the most radical leftist ever run by a major party — and he lived it as well, resigning from Wilson’s cabinet because his Christian Pacifism would not let him support the War.

    Even the first great issue of today’s Religious Right, prayer in the schools, was opposed by a substantial majority of the Protestant ministers, as well as almost all rabbis and priests, that testified in the Congressional hearings on the subject.

  13. #13 kehrsam
    February 20, 2007

    Thanks to Prup, Jon Rowe, and DuWayne, excellent analysis of a critical topic. The fact is that serious fundamentalist (in the sense of “that which is fundamental to the faith”) Christianity has always been a left-wing phenonemon — until the present. Fundamentalism has not always meant rigid codes of law, Pharisaism, and a rejection of reason.

    I don’t see how anyone could categorize Joachim of Flora, John Milton, or Thomas Paine as conservatives. Luther became a conservative when it became clear that the result of reform was revolution in society. Jesus’ teaching is not revolutionary only in the sense that he does not particularly care about economics, not that he supported the status quo.

    I sputter in amazement at modern evangelicals who claim the great issue of our day is tax relief for the upper classes. Personally, I would be happy to pay much more in taxes; I have had years where I did not owe tax, and those were not the economically happy ones. Evangelicals are consciously making a deal with the devil to get their hands on power. As Jesus said, “They have already received their reward”.

  14. #14 Wes
    February 20, 2007

    Is “personal” really the right word to use for Jefferson’s conception of God? I was under the impression that Jefferson did not think God heeded our prayers or intervened in events (i.e., he rejected miracles and supernatural occurrences). The Deistic “Providence” had always impressed me as a rather impersonal deity, a deity who set the world up, “endowed” his creation with certain properties (such as rights) in the beginning, and then let the world run according to its natural laws.

    A personal God would be a God with a distinct personality that you could interact with directly through prayer, miracles, “gifts of the Holy Spirit”, etc. The whole “Jesus is my friend” and “talking to God” thing. I don’t think Jefferson would have said “Providence is my friend” or “I talked to Providence before making my decision”.

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    February 20, 2007

    Jefferson not only believed in a God that intervened, he believed in a God that punished us for our deeds. Thus his anti-slavery statement:

    “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.

    Now, I happen to disagree with him on both parts of that statement. Of course one can arrive at the same natural rights philosophy without starting from the assumption that such rights are God-given. But this is a difficult passage to explain (or explain away) if Jefferson did not believe in a personal God who concerns himself with human actions.

  16. #16 Wes
    February 21, 2007

    That quote is consistent with the notion that we are “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights”. But it’s not an explicit endorsement of an intervening God. It’s a God that endowed his creation with certain properties from the beginning. It doesn’t follow from that that this God is still interfering with the resulting creation.

    I just think we should be careful how we read Jefferson. Divine Providence endowing us with rights which shouldn’t be violated doesn’t translate directly into, “If you sin, God will punish you in this world.”

    That Jefferson rejected the notion of a “supernatural” God is obvious from his own writings:

    When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But a heresy it certainly is.


    This just doesn’t jive with the notion of a personal God, as I understand it. A personal God is more than just a God who endowed matter with certain properties. A personal God is a God you can interact with through prayer. I just don’t see how such a God can be reconciled with Jefferson’s God. Yes, his God does things for a purpose (a teleological God), and yes, Jefferson’s God intended for the world to be a certain way. But that’s not a personal God. How a personal God could be a material being (which Jefferson obviously considered God to be) I don’t know. Jefferson seems to think that, if God were to come near you, you would be able to detect him with sense perception. But then how could such a God be a personal God we could directly interact with?

    I agree with you that Balko was wrong in calling Jefferson an agnostic. Jefferson seems to have genuinely believed that some kind of all-powerful Deity exists. His beliefs about God sound much more like a Deist to me. But the Deist God isn’t the kind of God you can have a personal relationship with.

    I hope I’m not being too nitpicky. I’m not trying to start a fight or anything. I agree with everything you’re saying except the description of Jefferson’s God as “personal”.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    February 21, 2007

    Wes wrote:

    That quote is consistent with the notion that we are “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights”. But it’s not an explicit endorsement of an intervening God. It’s a God that endowed his creation with certain properties from the beginning. It doesn’t follow from that that this God is still interfering with the resulting creation.

    Of course it’s consistent with his earlier statement in the Declaration; that is irrelevant. But the statement, and others from him as well, clearly indicates a belief in a God that punishes people for their wrongful actions. What else can “that God is just and his justice cannot sleep forever” mean than that God is going to exact justice upon us? That is the plain meaning of the statement.

    I just think we should be careful how we read Jefferson. Divine Providence endowing us with rights which shouldn’t be violated doesn’t translate directly into, “If you sin, God will punish you in this world.”

    “in this world” is not relevant to this discussion. Even if he only believed in punishment after death, that is still a personal god who takes a direct interest in our actions and either punishes us or rewards us for them. I agree that we should be careful how we read Jefferson, which means we should take his words at face value and not try to explain them away to fit a preconceived idea of what he believes. His words simply are not consistent with a purely impersonal, watchmaker God.

    His statement about God being “material” is an entirely different question from whether God is “personal”. Jefferson believed that all things, including God, were made of matter. That seems rather anachronistic to our modern ear, but it is what he believed nonetheless. That has nothing to do with whether God is personal, i.e. takes an interest in human actions. Jefferson believed both that God was material AND that he takes an interest in what we do and punishes us or rewards us for those actions. They are not mutually exclusive.

  18. #18 Dave L
    February 21, 2007

    “in this world” is not relevant to this discussion

    But isn’t it relevant to the term ‘intervening’? I always took that to refer specifically to “this world”. In other words, if God punishes you here on Earth he’s intervening; if he waits until you die, he’s not, although of course he would be a personal god. Is it not relevant because Jefferson believed in a material God yet believed that he does punish or reward, so the only possible alternative is that he is an intervening God (using my definition of intervening).

    I realize now that I’ve always been thinking the ‘blind watchmaker’ only referred to this reality, which may be mistaken, and in the afterlife God could reveal himself and reward or punish and still be consistent with that term. I may not be putting enough emphasis on the word ‘blind’ though. Jefferson definitely has a complex, and fascinating, view of God; I haven’t gotten my mind around the idea of a material God yet. Does Jefferson reject the idea of an afterlife or eternal soul?

  19. #19 Wes
    February 22, 2007

    not try to explain them away to fit a preconceived idea of what he believes.

    Please don’t preconceive what I believe, either. Why do you think I’m trying to “explain away” Jefferson’s beliefs on some preconceived idea? You’re making a very unfair assumption about me.

    “Notes on Virginia”, the work from which your Jefferson quote is taken, was intended for public consumption, and published in 1782. Talk of “God’s Justice” and divine retribution are common rhetorical devices, and taking them on “plain meaning” is not such a good idea. “Plain meaning” in this instance boils down to “Common acceptation of what the ‘justice of God’ means”. But Jefferson’s beliefs in God are certainly not common. He had a very unique conception of God, and taking a common rhetorical device from one of his writings and trying to glean his personal beliefs from it is a bad idea.

    But that’s not really the point I was trying to make. There’s a lot more to a personal God than “takes an interest in human affairs.” A God who created man and granted him natural rights could certainly be said to take interest in human affairs, but it doesn’t follow ipso facto you can have a personal relationship with such a God.

    A purposeful God is not necessarily a personal God. The God Jefferson believed was certainly purposeful, but that doesn’t make him a personal God. Jefferson’s God is not the type of God you can pray to. He isn’t a miracle worker, he’s certainly not “beyond” the universe, and he doesn’t “move” you spiritually. He’s not an invisible spirit beyond the sensible realm, but a material being within the sensible realm. In other words, it’s not the type of God you can interact with personally.

    I grew up Christian, and I’m very personally familiar with notions of a personal God, and Jefferson’s God just doesn’t fit the bill. These days I’m agnostic, but I still remember the days when I truly thought I felt, not in a sensible but in a spiritual way, the presence of God. Jefferson’s God, who’s a material being that endowed man with natural rights, quite simply isn’t that kind of a God.

    Jefferson’s God isn’t the kind of God you can have a personal relationship with. You can’t talk to him, you can’t ask him for help, you can’t call him your friend. It’s just not the same thing.

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