What an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in Politics & Religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power & priestcraft. --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, March 21, 1801
Jefferson frequently identified priests as co-conspirators with kings and nobles in the suppression of human freedom. In general, he believed that priests, especially Roman Catholic or Calvinist ones, corrupted republican government by forcing their congregants to adopt abstruse metaphysical propositions instead of thinking for themselves. Jefferson thought that Massachusetts and Connecticut (where the Congregational Church was still established throughout his presidency) provided excellent evidence for this position. To him, Congregationalist ministers and Federalist politicians in these states mutually reinforced one another's arbitrary authority. By way of contrast, he adored Baptist ministers, who insisted on the separation of church and state and emphasized the primacy of the individual conscience.
Who would Jefferson identify as the "priests" of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
While his views on today's divisive social issues might disappoint twenty-first century liberals, Jefferson would have surely grieved at the ascendance of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s. He would be absolutely stunned at the scale of the Southern Baptist apostasy and would rank James Dobson and Ralph Reed along with the "barbarians" of 1800. Jefferson would not be able to understand, for instance, how fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention have reconciled the enforcement of a Baptist orthodoxy and support of the Republican Party with their more libertarian religious heritage. Moreover, Jefferson would interpret Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition as diabolical handmaidens of the Republican Party. In Dobson's and Reed's exhortations over the last three decades that listeners (or readers) vote according to what evangelical leaders define as the "orthodox" Christian position on social issues, Jefferson would see priestcraft of the highest order. Notwithstanding his own views on these social issues, he would resist the use of religious belief to compel votes with every resource available to him.
Charles F. Irons is Assistant Professor of History at Elon University.