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Faith and the PresidencyFrom George Washington to George W. Bush$
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Gary Scott Smith

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195300604

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195300604.001.0001

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 Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

 Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

(p.53) Chapter Two Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State
Faith and the Presidency

Gary Scott Smith (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

While many of George Washington’s contemporaries portrayed him as a devout Christian, Thomas Jefferson’s foes depicted him as an infidel and an atheist. Given how similar their religious views and practices were, these radically different appraisals of Washington and Jefferson are ironic. Religion mesmerized, tantalized, alarmed, and sometimes inspired Jefferson, and he discussed religious issues, movements, and leaders often in his conversation and correspondence and occasionally in his addresses and published writings. Religious issues played a major role in Jefferson’s life and presidency. He wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) that disestablished the Episcopal Church, enshrined the principle of freedom of conscience, and helped prepare the way for the First Amendment. Since 1947 his metaphor of a “wall of separation” between church and state has dominated constitutional debate over the proper place of religion in public life and policy. Although he repudiated much of orthodox Christianity, the Virginian was a deeply religious man. Jefferson’s alleged lack of faith was a major issue in the hotly contested election of 1800. In an effort to discover the historical Jesus, he devised two different editions of the Gospels for his own use that eliminated all miraculous elements and focused on Christ’s ethical teachings. Although his supporters, his opponents, and academicians have, for the past two centuries, debated the nature of his faith and whether he should be labeled an Episcopalian, a deist, or a Unitarian, many scholars do not recognize how important Jefferson’s religious convictions were to his philosophy of government and career. Jefferson’s character and views of slavery are also examined.

Keywords:   character, church and state, 1800 election, Gospels, infidel, philosophy of government, slavery, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Unitarian, wall of separation

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