While it is impossible to physically break the leg of a man who has been dead for nearly 200 years, it is still possible to fracture the foundations, or legs, that support his religious and philosophical belief system. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice to misrepresent the deceased, whose only defense against such attacks are the very words being used against them.
“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” 
Taken from his Notes on the State of Virginia – Query XVII (1782), this single quote from Thomas Jefferson, when considered in its context, provides a good summary and illustration of his perspective towards what most modern scholars now refer to as the sociopolitical doctrine of the “Separation of Church and State.” Unfortunately, this particular quote is often lifted from its context and misconstrued to imply that not only was Jefferson himself indifferent or even hostile towards public religion, but that he also believed all civil government should embrace such a policy towards religion.
Since the US Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board (1947), this misinterpretation of Jefferson’s views has helped prop up and maintain a government policy of what has been termed religious neutrality or religious pluralism, a policy that not only breaks from the original intent of Jefferson but also and more severely from the majority of the Founders as a collective. More pertaining to this focus of this piece, this misinterpretation has sadly helped convince many historians, lawmakers, judges, educators, religious leaders and laymen alike, both during his lifetime and in the present, that Jefferson was not in any sense, a Christian, but rather that he was “impious,” an “atheist,” a “deist,” or an “infidel.”
Simply including the immediately preceding sentence would assist in properly understanding the point Jefferson makes by his “picks my pocket… breaks my leg” comment. After declaring that man is only answerable to God for their religious beliefs, Jefferson concludes that “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.” To illustrate this point, Jefferson is essentially saying that it would not physically hurt him if his neighbor held a different religious belief than he held. Yet, if his neighbor stole from him or physically harmed him, then Jefferson had actually been injured. Therefore, government could only legislate on actions that cause demonstrable physical injury and not on beliefs or words that merely caused differences of opinions.
In no way do the two sentences in question imply any sense of indifference of or hostility towards religion by Jefferson, personally. Nor do they indicate that Jefferson felt that government must never engage in religious preferentialism or accommodationism. Cherry-picking and taking these two quotes out of context to assert anything else than their plain meaning is pure revisionism. Even worse, doing so presents a distraction from and undermines the actual points that Jefferson was trying to make.
Query XVII presents Jefferson’s observations of how “different religions” were, in the past and at the time, received in the state of Virginia. Jefferson first briefly traces the development of Virginia’s religious history, explaining how the initial Anglican English settlers in Virginia held the dominant powers of “making, administering and executing the laws” and thus “shewed…intolerance” towards other Christian denominations. Various laws were enacted that regulated religious beliefs and more importantly, actions and inactions. If violated, offenders might face fines, imprisonment and possibly execution. Some of these early laws, particularly directed towards the Quakers, consisted of punishing individuals for “unlawful assembling [to worship]”, refusing to “have their children baptized” and not paying a tax to the official State religious establishment (first the Church of England, then the American Anglican Church) to support its clergy.
Jefferson states that, at his time of writing, although most of the the previously mentioned “acts of [the British] parliament“and other “statutory oppressions in religion” had been “wiped away,” there still remained oppressive laws “imposed by the [Virginian] common law” and the post-Revolution Virginia Assembly. Heresy, as defined by the Anglican ecclesiastical judges, was still considered a “capital offense, punishable by burning” according to the common law, and thus because the state Assembly passed legislation that gave the general [civil] court jurisdiction over common law, it was still a crime enforceable by the civil government.
Anyone who denied “the being of a God,or the Trinity” or asserted that “there are more gods than one,” or who denied “the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority” could be imprisoned and/or lose their eligibility to hold any type of public office or employment, sue or give testimony in court, claim an inheritance and even lose guardianship of their own children. These acts were, according to Jefferson, a form of “religious slavery” maintained by the “coercion of the laws.”
The remaining second half of Query XVII consists of Jefferson asserting two main arguments:
- religious rights, or the “rights of conscience,” are man’s natural rights, answerable only to God.
- it is not only ineffective but also immoral to try to force people to come to recognize truth.
Jefferson’s key argument is that constraint will never make a “a truer man”, nor will it ever “cure them” of their errors in religious belief. He asserts that “Reason and free inquiry” will help “support the true religion” by allowing man to test “every false religion” and determine which is correct because “truth can stand by itself.” Jefferson then attributes the introduction of Christianity to the Roman Empire’s eventual permitting of religious toleration, and determines that without the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on free inquiry, “the corruptions of Christianity” would have never been exposed and corrected.
Another related quote from this Query that is also typically misconstrued, is when Jefferson talks about the “millions of innocent men, women and children… [who had] been burnt, tortured, fined [and] imprisoned” since the introduction of Christianity. Yet Jefferson does not claim that Christianity caused such oppressions, but rather that such oppressions were caused by “fallible men” who were “governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons” and who used coercion in attempts to “produce uniformity.” Jefferson makes the logical point that it would be impracticable to, by use of coercion, force the “999 wandering sects [false religions]” to be “fathered into the field of truth [of the one true religion].”
By Jefferson’s reasoning, the only way to achieve a uniformity in the true religion [which he would profess to be uncorrupted Christianity] was through “reason and persuasion” which could only exist when “free inquiry [is] indulged.”Jefferson ends this Query by pointing to those states which embraced full religious freedom as being examples where religion is supported and flourishes, and finally warns of a future where “rulers will become corrupt [and] people careless.” Thus because neither the “spirit of the people” nor the government was reliable to protect against “tyrannical laws [against religious conscience],”the “time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis” was while most American rulers were “honest [and] united.”
When the two Jefferson quotations discussed in this piece are properly considered in their context, they reveal a strikingly different message than what is typically asserted by many amateur and even some professional scholars and educators. Those who intentionally misrepresent these words of Jefferson for the sole purpose of supporting their own preconceived opinions and agendas, do a significant injustice to his principles and his arguments. It is quite disrespectful and intellectually dishonest to break the legs of a dead man by attempting to tarnish his reputation or, by misconstruing his words, substitute “falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”
*As a disclaimer, I personally tend to find Jefferson’s view in this particular case to be somewhat unreasonable and overly idealistic. I may perhaps, better elaborate on this in the future.*
- Thomas Jefferson, The Sacred Rights of Conscience, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc. 2009), “Notes on the State of Virginia – 1782”, Query XII, pp.290-293
- Whether or not Jefferson’s views are the most correct or reasonable is beside the purpose of this piece as it neither attempts to argue for nor against his views. Recommended reading on this matter: William Linn, The Sacred Rights of Conscience, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc. 2009) “Serious Considerations on the Election of a President”, pp. 486-489; James H. Hutson’s Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, (Washington: Library of Congress, 1998); Michael W. McConnell, Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith, edited by Nancy L. Rosenblum (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000) “Believers as Equal Citizens”, pp. 96-97.
- See: David J. Voelker, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall and Jeffry H, Morrison (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), “Thomas Paine’s Civil Religion of Reason”, pp. 172-173; Michael Zuckerman, The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson 1743-1790, edited by Paul Leicster Ford (Originally Published- New York: GP Putnum’s Sons, 1914. Republished – Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) Introduction, pp. xxii-xxiii; Jim Walker, Thomas Jefferson on Christianity and Religion, NoBeliefs.com; Christopher Hitchens, Hitches vs. Blair: The Munk Debate on Religion, edited by Rudyard Griffiths (Toronto: House of Anasasi Press Inc., 2011), p. 34; Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1997) pp. 94
- Abraham Lincoln, Address at Cooper Institute – 27 February 1860, Teaching American History, accessible at: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/documents/address-at-cooper-institute/