I noted in my last post one of Jefferson's Federalist Clergy Critics -- John Mitchell Mason -- termed a passage from Notes on the State of Virginia as exemplifying "the morality of devils." Since the Liberty Fund reproduces the entire sermon, I thought I'd reproduce a larger passage from which that line was taken, to show its context:
Ponder well this paragraph. Ten thousand impieties and mischiefs lurk in its womb. Mr. Jefferson maintains not only the inviolability of opinion, but of opinion propagated. And that no class or character of abomination might be excluded from the sanctuary of such laws as he wishes to see established, he pleads for the impunity of published error in its most dangerous and execrable form. Polytheism or atheism, “twenty gods or no god,” is perfectly indifferent in Mr. Jefferson’s good citizen. A wretch may trumpet atheism from New Hampshire to Georgia; may laugh at all the realities of futurity; may scoff and teach others to scoff at their accountability; it is no matter, says Mr. Jefferson, “it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” This is nothing less than representing civil society as founded in atheism. For there can be no religion without God. And if it does me or my neighbor no injury, to subvert the very foundation of religion by denying the being of God, then religion is not one of the constituent principles of society, and consequently society is perfect without it; that is, is perfect in atheism. Christians! what think you of this doctrine? Have you so learned Christ or truth? Is atheism indeed no injury to society? Is it no injury to untie all the cords which bind you to the God of heaven, and your deeds to his throne of judgment; which form the strength of personal virtue, give energy to the duties, and infuse sweetness into the charities, of human life? Is it indeed no injury to you, or to those around you, that your neighbor buries his conscience and all his sense of moral obligation in the gulph of atheism? Is it no injury to you, that the oath ceases to be sacred? That the eye of the Omniscient no more pervades the abode of crime? That you have no hold on your dearest friend, farther than the law is able to reach his person? Have you yet to learn that the peace and happiness of society depend upon things which the laws of men can never embrace? And whence, I pray you, are righteous laws to emanate, if rulers, by adopting atheism, be freed from the coercion of future retribution? Would you not rather be scourged with sword and famine and pestilence, than see your country converted into a den of atheism? Yet, says Mr. Jefferson, it is a harmless thing. “It does me no injury; it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” This is perfectly of a piece with his favorite wish to see a government administered without any religious principle among either rulers or ruled. Pardon me, Christian: this is the morality of devils, which would break in an instant every link in the chain of human friendship, and transform the globe into one equal scene of desolation and horror, where fiend would prowl with fiend for plunder and blood—yet atheism “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” I will not abuse you by asking, whether the author of such an opinion can be a Christian? or whether he has any regard for the scriptures which confines all wisdom and blessedness and glory, both personal and social, to the fear and the favor of God?
As noted in the last post, a great irony is that these pious figures who supported Adams presumed he was Christian while Jefferson was not. That misunderstanding lives on today. A careful examination of their correspondence shows that both agreed on their personal religious tenets, neither was a deist or an orthodox Christian, but occupied an in between "unitarian" position. Adams, however, was friendlier to religion and government intermixing.
The two reasons for the misunderstanding, I have concluded, are 1) both Jefferson and Adams at this time refused to publicly exclaim their unitarianism, and 2) the slowness with which information traveled and lack of access to available, complete information in that era.
First, publicly denying the Trinity at that time could have ruined Jefferson's and Adams' political careers. The orthodox took power in Western Civilization soon after Christianity replaced paganism (Christendom settled this issue with the Council of Nicea in 325 AD). During the American Founding, at the state level orthodox Christianity was institutionally established and, as such, it had the power to potentially halt the political success of either figure and almost succeeded with Jefferson. Separating church and state was a gradual process that didn't happen all at once. France tried that and their society went into convulsions. Jefferson and Adams, while Presidents, both systematically used generic language when speaking of God. And Adams, though a lifelong unitarian, gave a Thanksgiving proclamation that sounded almost downright Trinitarian. Though he regretted giving this and almost all other of his references to God were generic.
Second, late 18th Century America, we must remind ourselves, wasn't an era of instantaneous access to information as is America today. For instance, we already know that Barack Obama's minister said controversial things from the pulpit. John Adams testifies that his Congregational Church openly preached unitarianism as of 1750. Yet, I seriously doubt the orthodox were aware of this fact. They probably knew he was affiliated with the Congregational Church, which had Puritan (orthodox Trinitarian) roots. Jefferson's book was one that was widely disseminated, and he got in trouble for a few passages that led ministers to wrongly conclude he was a Deist or an atheist. John Adams too wrote a book that posited pagan Greco-Roman religion as "rational, intelligible, and eternal, for the real happiness of man in society, and throughout his duration." If the orthodox carefully examined that book as they did Jefferson's, it seems to me, Adams could have gotten in as much trouble as did Jefferson.
Eventually, in the early 19th Century, unitarianism, still viewed as "heresy" by the orthodox, gained more social respectability and could "come out" so to speak. And it did. It could not have done so if America's Founders did not firmly secure the unalienable rights of conscience, much to the chagrin of orthodox Christians of the dominant established sects who wished to maintain their stranglehold on American governments.