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What Would Thomas Do?

Lessons and affirmations Thomas Jefferson’s legacy offers colleges and universities navigating free speech and religious freedom.

October 30, 2019
 
 

Thomas Jefferson’s self-curated epitaph famously makes no mention of his presidency, and not even his vice presidency. Rather, Jefferson wanted to be memorialized for just three things: founding the University of Virginia, penning the Declaration of Independence and writing the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. It’s well-known that he authored the declaration, and many know he founded UVA. Far fewer know much about the Virginia statute and its role in leading up to the Constitution’s First Amendment and how we frame freedom of religion and speech. At a time in which religious freedom and free speech are hotly contested on our campuses, it’s worth revisiting its lessons.

Let’s start with the historical dimensions. In the Virginia statehouse debate, Patrick Henry opposed Jefferson and James Madison. Henry, holding that religion was essential for the inculcation of the civic values that democracy depends upon, believed in multiple establishment. He wanted a Virginia in which levies were used to support a number of denominations, rather than the establishment of one particular Christian church -- in the case of Virginia, the Episcopal church. Jefferson, in contrast, didn’t believe in multiple establishment. He wanted to disestablish Anglicanism and “establish,” in the language of the bill, “religious freedom.” Therein lies the shift in the relationship between religion and democracy inherent in the American genius.

In the opinion of Jefferson, the American project should neither establish an official church nor levy taxes to support multiple denominations. Note in particular his idea of establishing religious freedom by removing the collection of taxation in support of religious institutions. Doing so, Jefferson thought, wouldn’t just be bad policy, but an infringement of religious freedom. In the words of the statute, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” The move is decidedly away from thinkers like John Locke and the idea that governments could establish an official church while also allowing for some measure of free exercise (and in this sense, goes beyond Locke’s religious toleration). Washington’s famous letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, R.I., refers to this shift from toleration to freedom as an “enlarged and liberal policy … worthy of imitation.” He continues, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

But I think the Virginia statute also implicates free speech. It climaxes with this ringer of a sentence: “Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” Jefferson is inviting open and full communication and conversation on various religious, philosophical, and world views. In spite of how his wall of separation is frequently understood to silence conversation on such religious viewpoints, I think that his protection of religious freedom through disestablishment actually invites the expression of varied positions in public life. I think the statute suggests that ethic.

I have to believe that his epitaph evinces Jefferson’s prizing the American success in moving from toleration to freedom even more than he prized attaining the highest office in the land. But still I wonder what he might make of our times, in which too often truth is not “disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate,” but free speech itself is weaponized. Remember, the larger purpose was that free discourse would result in “errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” In other words, free speech as he understood it suggested a process by which interlocutors would weed out specious arguments and arrive at agreed-upon truth. It is a process that relies on a civic ethic in which we all have the requisite education and knowledge to engage each other through a shared ethic of understanding. In that regard, America’s colleges and universities play an indispensable role in nurturing and developing effective citizens for these trying times.

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