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Thomas Jefferson vs John Adams

It was the wisdom of the Founding Fathers to ensure that while...visionaries are free to shout their dreams from the mountaintops, they are not at liberty to impose them on their fellow citizens.

Simon Schama

By the time of the American Revolution, less than half of the population are attending established churches. In Virginia, it’s less than a third. The Founding Fathers, those who write the Declaration, Constitution, and its amendments, have to please both the faithful, and the faithless. In their new framing of the new relationship between church and state, the founding fathers are as much frontiersmen as any Boone or Jedadiah. They make modern democracy.

Thomas Jefferson (the first US Secretary of State, its second Vice President, and third President) and John Adams (the first US Vice President and its second President) are two of the most influential authors on the Declaration of Independence. But their religious views differ greatly. Jefferson believes Jesus ‘perhaps the greatest of history’s moral teachers’ but he doesn’t subscribe to the religiously fundamental view. Or as Schama puts it, Jefferson doesn’t believe Jesus to be a ‘water-walking, corpse-resuscitator’. He believes the new state of America should be guided by the morality of Christianity, but not be regulated by its religion.

“It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Thomas Jefferson

His views are a variant of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. Williams was far more fiercely fundamentalist than Jefferson. But it was Williams understanding of religious intolerance by the Church of England that made him equally passionate with Jefferson in believing the state had no business imitating the church. But John Adams believes the state has no power without the moral authority of Christianity.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
John Adams

Adams even makes Sunday church attendance compulsory. But which branch of Christianity to follow? The Puritans, the Presbyterians, the Mormons, the Quakers, the Seekers, the Calvinists? The religious interpretations seemed as numerous as the individuals.

The compromise between Jefferson and Adams partially resolves itself with the federal first amendment, in that it still allows individual states to increase the influence of religion.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. This gives to the faithful their freedom to believe and practice, and to the faithless, the promise they’ll not be ruled by the ‘righteous’.

And so America will never tear itself apart over religion like its European cousins. But this most modern of democracies will fall prey to division over one of the oldest social systems: Slavery.

Did you know?

The successful Puritan insistence on a preaching ministry explains why in America, which has largely taken its religion from its Puritans, the term ‘preacher’ is so widely used as a synonym for priest, clergyman, parson or minister. Hugh Brogan: The Penguin History of the USA, The Adams dictate of having to attend Sunday church was only repealed seven years after his death in 1833 Simon Schama: The American Future, America always attracted both the religious and the more materially minded. When a 17th century minister implored his congregation to remember the religious freedom they had sailed the Atlantic for, they told him their real motive...“our main end was to catch fish.” Hugh Brogan: The Penguin History of the USA