02/26/2013 11:52 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

Was Jefferson for Jesus?­­­ Our Founding Father's Religious Resume

During our recent 2012 partisan campaign, with its familiar bipolar rhetoric regarding religion, we inevitably heard calls upon Jesus and the Founding Fathers, the latter among whom Thomas Jefferson stands as the most towering figure. Curiously, he supported both political sides. And he left an historical record, one that can be verified and that plainly spells out his hotly debated religious views (unlike Jesus, who never revealed his private thoughts in pen and ink). In his book "Thomas Jefferson, Author of America," the late Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, defines Jefferson as a secular deist. Yet, Hitchens needs no artfully blended facts to find Jefferson a man clearly on the side of a secular nation. Though his writings at times publicly favored or encouraged the practice of religion, some of Jefferson's most private writings did not.

Jefferson, like Franklin and others, was admittedly a classicist and founded his deepest convictions not in Scripture, but in Homer, Horace and other ancients. These were men who greatly influenced European political thinkers of the times, including Jefferson's own philosopher, John Locke. Locke provided the line, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which from his British pen read "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property," a more honest aspiration for landowning aristocrats. Locke wrote, "So that, in effect, religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts, and ought most peculiarly to elevate us, as rational creatures, above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational and more senseless than beasts themselves." Public figures were gentlemen, and as such were classically trained; that is, cultured in Greek and Latin. In general, they respected the minds and practices of religious believers, but did not necessarily espouse a faith for themselves. Jefferson, much the deist, did hold to the idea of a "designer" to -- at most -- explain the scientific origin of the universe, but this being was not the Christian God. Enlightenment thinkers called this designer the "great clockmaker," but he was not the same God that interceded in the cosmos.

In 1782, as Jefferson's ailing wife, Martha, slipped away, he sat with her and they recited passages from Tristram Shandy. Though Mrs. Jefferson began, "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads ... like clouds of a windy day never to return more⎯every thing presses on..." she was too weak to continue, so Thomas finished the passage: "...and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!" This text predated the Romantic period and clearly does not reflect any faith in a future world on the part of the Virginian.

Jefferson's most significant writing, after the Declaration of Independence, was "Notes on the State of Virginia," written in 1785. It contains seminal ideas for separation of Church and State and shows a rather dismissive attitude toward religion: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others," it reads, continuing, "but it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

In 1813, Jefferson's actions indicated yet another separation in his mind between the natural and supernatural world. It was then he used a razor to slice the miracles from the New Testament, creating the reassembled "Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." In a letter to John Adams the following year, Jefferson wrote, "In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."

Jefferson expressed his preference for human science over the divine to Joseph Priestly, writing in 1800 about the University of Virginia, which was established in 1819 as the first non-religion-based college in the United States: "We wish to establish in the upper country of Virginia, and more centrally for the State, a University on a plan so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us."

Between 1814 and 1823 Jefferson penned a series of anti-Christian comments, starting with a note to Dr. Thomas Cooper, where he claimed:

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law. ... In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? ... Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."

His diatribes asserting critical reason over religion are found in many of his letters. At one point (August 15, 1820), to John Adams he writes:

"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke."

In another missive, also to Adams (April 11, 1823), he rants: "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

And in a letter (Oct. 31, 1819) to Thomas Short, his former secretary, Jefferson makes explicit the origin of his morals: "As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us" -⎯ a perfectly logical comment from a classicist.

So, for the sake of future elections and for historical fidelity, can we agree that, while some of the Founding Fathers might have placed their hope in the Almighty, Thomas Jefferson was not one of them.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hitchens.