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09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rick Warren Interviews Thomas Jefferson


Could you tell us the greatest moral failure of your life, and greatest moral failure of America?

Thomas Jefferson:
You, Pastor Warren, live in world where everything must be confessed, not just to a preacher, or to one's God, but rather to the world at large, as if everyone had a right to know my inner-most thoughts, my moral failures as you call them, as if this had some bearing on being president of the United States. This modern tendency, to turn every conversation and shared search for answers to serious questions of statecraft, into a therapy session is both baffling and self-defiling to a man with my reticence and pride. But to answer you question directly, and to you audience indirectly, my moral failings are none of your business.

What does Christianity mean to you, on a daily basis?

Thomas Jefferson:
As you no doubt know, I have very little connection with any religious sect. Perhaps you might think that the choices at hand are simply not to my liking, or that I consider my time better spent with other pursuits than those that require adherence to a specific denomination and church attendance. Rather, it is only that I have prefered to keep my own council when it comes to matters spiritual.

I can say, however, that I believe in both a creative and personal God, a divinely ordered universe, that man has an innate moral sense, and that Jesus was a great moral teacher, perhaps the greatest the world has witnessed.

In fact, during a long and pleasurable correspondence with president John Adams during my twilight years, I pointed out in one letter that I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. I don't know where science has brought us since those words written in 1823, but having the greatest respect for reason and empirical investigations of all things known to man, I can not imagine that our ideas about our natural world and our universe have remained static

While the nature of God and our universe as expressed above is, it seems to me, incontestable, I do not, however, accept that Jesus is my savior, that he performed the miracles ascribed to him, or that he died for my sins in a blood atonement. But in his teachings, and his teaching alone, there lies the highest of moral callings.

For my assertion that to explore religion honorably one must "fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion," I was accused of destroying religion and loosening public morals. When I suggested to my nephew that he "question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear....Those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces," I was called an "atheist" by my erstwhile political opponent, Alexander Hamilton, and a "confirmed infidel" by an army of clergymen from Boston to Bal Harbour.

In my 1786 writings, Notes On The State of Virginia, I pointed out that "Millions of Innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned." To what effect? "To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites, to support roguery and error all over the earth."

For this open distrust of organized religion, for pointing out the difference between reason, as I understood it, and superstition, I was vilified by my Christian enemies in the presidential election of 1800. But I still managed to win that election, with the help from many religious voters. Expressing similar ideas today would bar me from the same elevated position I had the honor to occupy for eight years. As your saying goes today, I think, I could not be elected to the post of dog catcher in 2008, especially after pointing out on one occasion that clerics, in general, are "a band of dupes and impostors," sponsors of "ignorance, absurdity, untruth, charlatanism and falsifications." You may be an exception; I have no evidence one way or another.

Please, make no mistake about the matter, I hold profound and deeply held religious beliefs. But today, it seems, all must be revealed, an accounting of every virtue and vice forced into the pubic arena, and the popular preacher is now the premier interlocutor and inquisitor for aspiring presidents. The care of each free man's soul should belong to himself, not to anyone whose business is conversion.

Religious convictions, I asserted in 1814 and assert today, "are a subject of accountability to our God alone. I inquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life to know whether yours or mine, our friend's or our foe's is exactly right."

The trusted citizenry of the United States might dilate on these facts when proposing that we have made enormous progress since my 18th century.

As it is my habit and preoccupation to track closely the hourly activities at Monticello, I have no problem keeping records of the precipitation, the movement of the winds, and the growth of plants, the coming and going of animals of considerable variety. But Christianity and my daily live? I dare say, that, too, is my own business, and is no doubt being tracked by more diligently by a record keeper with more sense than I possess.

Does evil exist? What do we do about it, negotiate with it, contain it, defeat it?


Thomas Jefferson:
The concept of evil, it seems to me, is a metaphysical conceit. Perhaps this notion rests on an understanding of the Fall, from the state of perfect good to one where evil exists because the world no longer is perfect. We sin, we suffer, we know pain, confusion, shame, and a host of other things that trouble the human condition. And perhaps there is a moral evil that may correspond to the laws of the natural world. I don't know for certain. But in your question you seem to grant evil a standing that is both gargantuan and pervasive, as if it were one thing, easily recognizable, fought, and eventually defeated by human will (the will of God perhaps?), by laws and tactics that must, as one of the philosophers of your time put it, be "written in so small a print, and posted so high, that no one can read them."

There is certainly virtue, corruption, liberty, and oppression, displayed in more down to earth concerns, with private rights, a rough equality, and the benefits of commerce included. My sins and failures with regard to the liberty of my own chattel, (the condoning of evil pure and simple you might want to call them), I notice, have been meticulously cataloged over the past one hundred plus years. I hope only that some measure of historical contextualizing precedes immediate and severe moral condemnation. But it seems that fierce religious moralizing has migrated from the church into the domain of secular politics over the years, eclipsing even the pious whining and hypocritical canting of my time.

What should the role of faith based organization be today?


Thomas Jefferson:
I think my Virginia Statute on religious freedom of 1786 on the separation of church and state has stood the test experience over time, where "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinion, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry." I was called the "Virginia Voltaire" for holding such opinions, but I can't see how the strict separation of church and state should have called forth calumny and character assassination, then or now. And I do hope that Monsieur Francois-Marie Arouet's reputation has only grown since my day.

Could you be elected president today?


Thomas Jefferson:
Impossible.