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“Divided We Stand, United We Fall:” A Fourth of July Rabbinic Reflection on Thomas Jefferson and the Separation of Church and State

While the Fourth of the July is traditionally the time for flag waving, fireworks and barbeques, it can also serve as a day for serious reflection about the founding of the United States and the ideals and contradictions of the American Revolution. While perhaps no single person more fully defined the original aspirations of American democracy than Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the author of our Declaration of Independence, he also represented so many of the paradoxes of the America experience. On the one hand, Jefferson expressed what would become the American credo in the stirring words that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” On the other hand, Jefferson personally owned, throughout his life, approximately 600 slaves and probably fathered a number of illegitimate children with one of those slaves, Sally Hemings (1773-1835). Perhaps best called a gradual abolitionist, Jefferson did take steps to limit slavery during his lifetime, none of which proved to be effective.

Jefferson’s views on freedom of religion which won him the eternal admiration of American Jews is also complex. On the one hand, he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777 (adopted in 1786) and helped inspire both the removal of the religious test oath of office in the Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights (1791). On the other hand, he was no fan of revealed religion, particularly the Hebrew Bible nor an admirer of the Biblical ancestors of the Jews who he saw as a “bloodthirsty lot.” A rationalist, he rejected the possibility of miracles (like the sun standing still in the Book of Joshua) but believed in the idea of God as a Creator who desisted from intervening in human affairs. He allowed himself to be called a Christian but only in the “moral” sense of the term.

Jefferson saw anti-Semitism as proof of the folly of religious persecution and worked indefatigably to separate church and state, a phrase he coined in 1802. Indeed, for Jefferson protecting the rights of religious minorities and disallowing the establishment of religion were primary objectives in his enlightened view of government. Both served the interests of the early American Jewish community. Thus, on September 1, 1820, it is understandable why he wrote to Dr. Jacob de la Motta, a leader of the Jewish community of Charleston, South Carolina, that with respect to the place of religion in American society “divided we stand, united we fall” was the best path for America. In other words, for Jefferson, the union of religion and government was catastrophic. Early American Jews understood, appreciated that, and roundly applauded his efforts, even if they were not born out of any love for them or their faith.

On this Fourth of July, we should celebrate and reflect on all our freedoms as Americans and as American Jews. But we must also recognize that the issue of the separation of Church and State has become increasingly complicated in our day. On the one hand, the 3P program to protect payrolls during the worst days of the COVID clearly saved organized religion from financial obliteration with Federal dollars. Remarkably, I do not recall hearing a single protest to that initiative although I wonder what Jefferson himself would have thought of it. On the other hand, twisted arguments to extend freedom of religion are currently being used to curb other freedoms, especially with respect to the LGBTQ+ and trans communities. In my opinion, reducing or impairing gay and trans rights in the name of religion is a fundamental misreading of Thomas Jefferson, an inversion of his belief in protecting the people from excessive and mean-spirited government. It is the beginning of a slippery slope toward religious majoritarianism and ultimately a danger to Jews and other minorities in this society.

So, on this Fourth of July let us both celebrate our freedoms and activate our resolve to preserve, protect and expand our “unalienable” liberties. It is neither an easy nor an uncomplicated task, but it is our sacred duty as Americans and as Jews to remain eternally vigilant.

A Happy Fourth and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.