March 11, 2008


The Pious Infidel (Steven Waldman, March 11, 2008, First Things)

Jefferson seemed to believe in a God who was still present in, and intervened in, the lives of men and nations. After having read Jefferson attack so many of the legs of religion, it might seem jarring to now read his regular invocations of God as a personal force in life—sometimes in terms so direct and literal, they surpass those of today’s politicians.

In his first inaugural address, he declared that we should be “acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.” In his first message to Congress, in 1801, he thanked the “beneficent Being” who instilled in thee warring politicians a (temporary) “spirit of conciliation and forgiveness.”

In his second message, he credited the “smiles of Providence” for economic prosperity, peace abroad, and even good relations with the Indians. He never stopped asserting the importance of separating church and state, but he did this in the context of repeated public pronouncements about the powerful role of an intervening God in the fate of America. These two somewhat contradictory themes came together most directly in his second inaugural address. In the first part of the speech, he defended his practice of not issuing days of fasting or thanksgiving proclamations. But toward the end, he said that to avoid making the mistakes to which he, as a human, was prone, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Some look at Jefferson’s public pronouncements and sense cynicism. Recall his comment about “cooking up” an effective prayer proclamation to rally lethargic Americans. Perhaps he was just being a pol, using the language he thought would most appeal to his audience. But the evidence is stronger that Jefferson genuinely believed in a personal God and a spirit life. For one thing, he went much further in his pronouncements than he needed to, attributing a wide range of events and policies to God’s “smiles.” More important, his private letters reflected a similar view about the nature of God. In a letter to Eliza Trist, he declared that “it is not easy to reconcile ourselves to the many useless miseries to which Providence seems to expose us. But his justice affords a prospect that we shall all be made even some day.” In 1763, he wrote John Page that if we hope to fortify ourselves from misfortunes, “The only method of doing this is to assume a perfect resignation to the Divine will, to consider whatever does happen, must happen.” In 1801, he commended “your endeavors to the Being, in whose hand we are.” When Napoleon was defeated, he wrote to a friend: “It proves that we have a god in heaven. That he is just, and not careless of what passes in the world.”

How could this ultra-rationalist—a believer in science and reason—so fully embrace a supernatural God watching over our lives? This is another case in which today’s activists and scholars, by applying the standards and definitions of our time, misunderstand the ideas of a Founding Father. Remember: In this era before Charles Darwin: most of the Enlightenment leaders were not arguing against the existence of God. On the contrary, they argued that the laws of science actually proved the existence of God, if one knew how to look at it the right way.

Jefferson believed that our spiritual journeys must be led by reason, not faith. that faith is reasonable, Reason isn't.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2008 11:15 AM

The insight's a good one, but I know a Jesuit astronomer who'd give you heck for claiming it's "anglo-american" rather than Roman Catholic.

Posted by: Ralph Phelan at March 11, 2008 12:36 PM

Everything that we value as being fundamentally important about Anglo-American values is Catholic.

Posted by: b at March 11, 2008 1:09 PM

None of the Catholic countries believed it. They all fell for Reason.

Posted by: oj at March 11, 2008 1:47 PM


A Catholic England would have been just as free and prosperous as a Protestant England. Then we'd be free of the absurd notion that aspects of French & Spanish Catholicism that it's so fashionable to criticize were related to the religion rather than the nationality.

Posted by: b at March 11, 2008 4:34 PM

Poland was Communist for 50 years.

One need only compare the prosperity of the Lutheran/Calvinist/Puritan north of Europe to the Catholic South to see that's false. The Pope has gone Anglo, not vice versa.

Posted by: oj at March 11, 2008 5:13 PM

The standard dichotomy of rich, northern Protestants, and poor, southern Catholics is false.

I agree with b. If Henry VIII remained Catholic that England would have developed in a very similar way. Furthermore, Italy's north has always been one of the richest lands in Europe and they are just as Catholic as the impoverished mezzogiorno in Italy's south. Likewise, Germany's Catholic south (Bavaria) is more prosperous than Germany's Lutheran north. Catholic France has always been wealthy, as was the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before its period of anarchy.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 11, 2008 5:56 PM

Poland was ruled by Russian Communists for 50 years.

The rich Protestant vs. poor Catholic canard would be irrelevant even if it weren't false.

Posted by: b at March 11, 2008 6:22 PM

At the point where you have to deny the indisputable underlying facts, you recognize your theory must be wrong:

Posted by: oj at March 11, 2008 7:50 PM

Let's grant that in 2004 that certain northern European (historically Protestant) countries tend to be wealthier than southern European (historically Catholic) countries.

Why is that relevant to whether England would have been radically less free and/or wealthy had it remained Catholic? Was there something about the common law from the Magna Carta on for the next three centuries that changed fundamentally after 1540?

Posted by: b at March 12, 2008 9:17 AM

No, not certain nor at a given moment. The single best predictor of a nation's wealth and liberty is that it is Lutheran, Calvinist,and/or Anglospheric (and preferably isolated geographically).

The common law didn't matter, beliefs did.

Posted by: oj at March 12, 2008 2:26 PM

So how many "single best predictors" does that make?

England suffered a top-down tyrannical "Reformation" that even then had to be incremental to avoid massive rebellion. "Beliefs" were not messed with.

Posted by: b at March 12, 2008 3:18 PM

Followed by a bottom-up Revolution that made the new beliefs official state ethos.

Posted by: oj at March 12, 2008 5:22 PM

There were no new beliefs.

Posted by: b at March 12, 2008 6:12 PM

No wonder you don't understand why they diverged.

Posted by: oj at March 12, 2008 8:12 PM

You still never even attempt to list what changed. Because nothing did.

Posted by: b at March 13, 2008 3:17 PM

Too much changed to list, the biggest being doing away with the formulaic quality of Catholicism--similar to Judaism and Islam--and replacing it with a system of beliefs.

Posted by: oj at March 13, 2008 5:58 PM