Thomas Jefferson championed religious diversity and the separation of church and state. In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (passed 1786) guaranteeing full civil liberties to Virginians (white male ones, as was the custom of the day) regardless of religious views, “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The Virginia Statute served as the foundation of the religion clauses in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

In recent years, some Religious Right partisans have attacked Jefferson and his views on church and state. They argue that Jefferson never imagined the expansive form of religious diversity in America today. Thus, Jefferson only intended religious freedom for a broad Christian spectrum (and perhaps Jews).

Jefferson anticipated such charges in his autobiography, stating that religious liberty was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and the Mohometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination.” Some would reply that Jefferson held such views because he was not an orthodox Christian and faced charges of being an “infidel” in his own day. But where did Jefferson get these ideas? He got them from John Locke, the English Christian political philosopher. In 1689, a century before Jefferson, Locke made a case for complete religious freedom for “Pagans, Moslems, and Jews,” as “none ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” He continued, “The Gospel commands no such thing.”

“The Gospel commands no such thing.” Locke based his argument for religious freedom (including Muslims, non-believers, and Jews) on Christian principles. His Letter Concerning Toleration begins with an elegant call to love. Christianity consists of, as Locke wrote, “charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind.” The love of Jesus Christ thus served as the starting place for his political vision of the Christian state: full civil rights for all in a religiously diverse society.

This an excerpt from Diana Butler Bass’ article Jefferson’s Koran and the New Congress. The whole article is well worth the read. She really shows how the Religious Right has really skewed what one of the founding fathers thought about freedom of religion and the reason for the separation of church and state.