Jewish Journal


October 7, 2007

Why it mattered and didn’t that Jefferson was an atheist


Everybody fighting for the 2008 presidency has been talking about their religious convictions. (Cynical me, I think they’ve been a bit insincere.) Anyway, if we look back 208 years, we’d see that religion played a substantial role in possibly the most important election for the future of this country.

I had always heard Thomas Jefferson was a “deist”—someone who believed in a god but not The God. But, according to the papers of his day, laid out recently in The New Yorker, our soon-to-be third president was a “reputed atheist.” (That takes a bit of steam out of U.S. Rep. Peter Stark’s unveiling last spring as Congress’ first atheist.)

As Jefferson and John Adams, a publicly devout Christian, slugged it out on the campaign trail, the Gazette of the United States ran this:


At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is: “Shall I continue in allegiance to


Or impiously declare for


Jefferson was vehemently attacked for being a godless, slave-owning (-impregnating) sinner. But the underlying issue was what kind of liberties would this country afford its few voting members and everyone else who lived here. Jefferson favored greater freedoms while Adams sought to strengthen the office of the president. (A proto-Bush?)

Still, many people couldn’t get over the fact that Jefferson didn’t believe in God. And though he eventually won through a complicated process in the Electoral College, some members who didn’t want to give their vote to an atheist said they would rather “go without a Constitution and take the risk of civil war.”

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