The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia

Is revolutionary Virginia the birthplace of American secularism?

My attention was returned to this critical question by a recent twitter exchange between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby (and others) along side a recent piece by Haselby in Aeon.[1] The scuffle between Gordon-Reed and Haselby focuses on the time-is-a-flat-circle question of Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. Was he a secularist? Some variant of Christian? A Unitarian? An atheist? Haselby’s Aeon piece takes a different tack, arguing that the American founding represented a “rogue wave of rationality in a centuries-long sea of Protestant evangelising, sectarianism and God-talk.” Haselby marks out the Founders—particularly Jefferson and James Madison—as “visionary secularists” who created a secular republic, which was eventually co-opt by decidedly non-secular political and cultural forces. He singles out late eighteenth-century Virginia as the primary canvas upon which the great artists of American secularism worked.[2] Continue reading

Just How Free Was Religious Life in the Early American Republic?

Religious liberty, perhaps, is the key legacy of the Revolutionary generation. The new United States was a society where slavery was a growing economic force, gender inequality was becoming entrenched, and the new nation’s expansion relied on the exploitation and expropriation of Native Americans. If there was one freedom, however, on the march in the early republic it was religious freedom. The progress of religious freedom in the United States was also the progress of religion itself. “[T]he number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the state” noted James Madison, that famous advocate of religious liberty, in an 1819 letter.[1] Religious freedom, then, is the American freedom. This has been the animating assumption behind most scholarship on the religious development of late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Continue reading

Remembering “Jefferson’s Statute”

b7f1a-summertrip2010316Few documents in the history of American religious freedom are as famous as Virginia’s “[A]ct for establishing religious freedom” – also known as Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom or (more colloquially) as Jefferson’s Statute. A quick glance at Jefferson’s text (carefully edited by the Virginia General Assembly) shows us why. Few other documents are such a clear and powerful exposition on the need for freedom of conscience.[1] The text has also aged well and appeals both sides of our modern church-state conflicts. On one hand the Statute suggests that religious freedom is a gift from god, for the “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and on the other argues that religious beliefs are no different from “our opinions in physics or geometry.”  In the Statute what the twenty-first century reader would think of as distinct “religious” and “secular” discourses are melded with spiritual coercion denounced as both “sinful and tyrannical.”[2] Who can disagree with that? It is no wonder why, then, that Jefferson had his role in drafting Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom engraved on his tombstone. Continue reading

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