Church & State and Thomas Jefferson

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Apr 10, 2008 3:28 PM

Townhall.com's Lindsay Boyd is attending the Church & State 2008 Conference at Grove City College.  She will be checking in with us throughout the day.  Here's her first report from the road:  

"Church & State and Thomas Jefferson" by Dr. Gary Smith

It's Thursday, April 10th and the Grove City College's Center for Vision and Values Summit entitled "Church & State 2008" is officially underway! After attending last year's conference on the "De-Christianization of Europe", I am thrilled to be back in the Hall of Arts and Letters at the heart of the beautiful Grove City, Pennsylvania campus for round two. Last year's event was bold, stimulating, and aggressive in its approach towards acknowledging and dissecting the collective European agenda aimed at eradicating Christian influence (or prevalence for that matter) from civil discussion. The Center for Vision and Values hosted many of the brightest theological and political thinkers of our time to provide the foundations for a Socratic method of analyzing this alarming European movement.
 
Now, after putting to bed the ensuing chaos between religious communities and governments oversees, the tables have turned. If you can't be bothered with discussions on foreign affairs, perhaps this year's Summit will resonate closer to home. It's America's turn in the hot seat.
 
To begin the morning, Dr. Gary Smith addressed the very root of our civil discourse on matters of church and state relations by taking us back to the recorded thoughts of Thomas Jefferson, whose widely credited with providing a "road map" for proper distinctions between the two. Of course, there are many interpretations of said road map- and this was precisely the topic of Smith's speech.
 
Can a lawmaker's faith be applied to policy decisions? Is it acceptable to question the prevalence of one's faith in their decision-making processes? Is faith really a private matter for public officials? These questions and others were applied to Dr. Smith's analysis and subsequent interpretation of Jefferson's teachings.
 
Those looking to refute the legitimate influence that Christian thought had upon Jefferson's application of American foundational law have claimed that, at best, Jefferson was a "deist" and at worst, wasn't a person of faith at all. Therefore, when attempting to determine Jefferson's intent when he penned the famous (or infamous) "wall of separation" between church and state in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. These folks would have you believe that he was adamantly upholding a secular blue-print for the foundation and future operation of American civil society.
 
What was decided? Dr. Smith acknowledged that Jefferson was by no means a traditional evangelical or protestant Christian, but make no mistake- he was a Christian. He refutes these misguided attacks on Jefferson's faith with Jefferson's own words, such as his intent to insert "sacred and undeniable" into the Declaration as justification for our "inalienable rights". Smith evidenced scores of other religious texts, as well as examples of times in which Jefferson used federal funds or other property to aid in Christian works (how many knew that he authorized- 3 times over- the granting of state money to Christian groups for the evangelizing of Indian nations!?!)
 
Of course, Dr. Gary Smith wasn't here to claim the issue's clear and decisive. In fact, he reiterated the complexity of Jefferson's faith and the way he applied it to his contribution in American law. Yet, when so many put such extensive stock in Jefferson's thoughts on the proper relationships between church and state, Dr. Smith claims the answers lie more in Jefferson's pervasive belief in the Republic (and what moral teachings would benefit it the most), more than his personal tendency towards or away from religious doctrine. In other words, as many of us have claimed in our most intimate relationships, "it's complicated".
 
Hold onto your hats! The party's just getting started.