Here is what I am spending way too much time thinking about this morning:
In his famous “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” (1786) , Thomas Jefferson writes:
Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time…
Here is my quandary: What does Jefferson mean by “false religions?” He gives no examples of these so-called “false religions,” but suggests that they are being and have been “established and maintained” all over the world.
Is Jefferson saying that any kind of belief that has added something to the pure and undefiled moral teachings of Jesus is a false religion? If you read Jefferson’s writings on religion, he often distinguishes “real” Christianity (which he defines as the moral system of Jesus as described, for example, in his so-called “Jefferson Bible”) from the kind of superstitious religion propagated by clergy, churches, historic confessions, etc…. If this is indeed what Jefferson meant by “false religion,” then we might interpret the “Virginia Statute” of 1786 as a subtle slam on all of organized Christianity. To interpret it this way, however, seems to undermine the very purpose of the Statute, which was meant to give freedom to all religious believers, even if Jefferson deems the content of their religion to be “false.”
Or is Jefferson using “false religion” here to simply mean any religion that is connected, or has been connected, to the state. This interpretation fits better with the message of the Statute, but whether a religion is “true” or “false” is based, it seems, on one’s opinion of the content of the religion and not how the religion relates to the state or government.
Or Jefferson could be suggesting a combination of both of these options. Religions are “false” when they defend theological principles that add to the moral teachings of Jesus and/or are connected to a state church. In this sense, Jefferson believed that Calvinism was a “false religion” both because it affirmed theological principles (atonement, inspiration of the Bible, predestination, miracles, etc…) that went beyond the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and it had been too closely wedded to political experiments by John Calvin in Geneva, John Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay, or the Federalists of the 1790s.
So what did Jefferson mean by “false religion?”