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A religious conscience

Adam Jortner

Guest commentary

I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he [Christ] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.

While Jefferson remained a practicing Episcopalian, his personal faith veered towards Unitarianism. He believed Jesus was an exemplary mortal, but not a divine being; Jesus' moral teachings, not his death on the cross, comprised "salvation." Indeed, Jefferson spent some presidential evenings compiling The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, rearranging the four New Testament gospels to craft a single narrative of Jesus' life without any supernatural content. For example, Jefferson's version contains no walking on water, no last supper, and no resurrection.

Jefferson mostly kept his theology to himself, both out of principle and political pragmatism. He did not wish to see his religious views exploited for political gain. If a leader's religion became an object of debate, Jefferson worried it would result in "that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values religious conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others."  Jefferson was that man who valued religious conscience, and constructed the "wall of separation between Church & State" to protect the rights of believers from public invasion--and to protect his own unorthodox Christianity from political punditry. Questions of faith ought to remain between God and the believer. Thus, Jefferson sought to protect all American religious beliefs--including his own unorthodox Christianity.

Adam Jortner is an assistant professor of history at Auburn University.

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