Thomas Jefferson’s vision of religious freedom is central to American law and culture. But the nature of that vision is disputed, and even the prominence it claims in constitutional thought has come under heavy attack. John Ragosta’s compelling argument in Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed reasserts the primacy of Jefferson and demonstrates how the First Amendment reflected his strict separationist creed. The work is an engaging intellectual and legal history that offers new insights and perspectives.
Ragosta’s core argument stands against both the “preferentialist” view, which holds that the Constitution allows nondiscriminatory aid to religion, and the belief that the First Amendment was merely a jurisdictional mechanism to protect states’ religious establishments. Scholars in the latter camp conclude that the amendment had no [End Page 503] substantive force that could be practically applied. Ragosta deftly flips this argument on its head by noting that Jefferson and the founders did intend to protect states, not against a toothless establishment clause, but against one “very strictly preventing the federal government from interfering with . . . religious institutions in its sphere of authority” (p. 117). The amendment’s strict requirements were the very reason the states needed protection from it. This goes a long way in straightening out the tangled relationship between the jurisdictional aspects of the First Amendment and its substantive content.
To get to this point, Ragosta first examines Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs and the broader religious culture in Virginia. He argues that Jefferson’s religious experience grounded his view of religious freedom. He provides a nuanced description that admits the inconsistencies of Jefferson’s thought, but convincingly shows his consistent support for the strict separation of church and state. Ragosta then places these views within the context of Virginia politics, drawing on his first work, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty (2010). He paints a finely textured portrait that demonstrates a great familiarity with the sources, which include newspapers, legislative materials, and petitions from religious dissenters. These dissenters in Virginia joined with Enlightenment critics such as Jefferson in espousing a strict separation of church and state. This process eventually led to the passage of Jefferson’s Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom.
The second half of Ragosta’s work completes his tightly ordered argument. He explains how the Virginia experience and Jefferson’s principles provide a touchstone for interpreting the First Amendment. The strict separationist position was a “compromise,” as it only applied to the federal government, allowing the states free rein over religious practices and establishments. He next shows how Jefferson’s ideas gradually gained a foothold in American law and culture during the nineteenth century. Finally, having linked Jefferson’s philosophy to the core of the First Amendment, he then surveys “Jefferson’s and [End Page 504] [James] Madison’s actions concerning several controversies in their own time” (p. 170).
There are only minor quibbles to be had with the work. For example, some of the deeper contradictions in Jefferson’s thought are barely examined, such as how to square his intense anticlericalism with his commitment to natural rights. At times, Jefferson sought to impose restrictions on the clergy on account of religion, seemingly violating the rights he supported. Yet, Ragosta accurately captures the essential nature of the Jeffersonian vision and provides a subtle interpretation of Jefferson’s actions in their political context. More importantly, he makes a convincing case that Jefferson’s strict separationist thought was, and should remain, at the center of the First Amendment. The work thus represents a valuable contribution to the field.
ALEXANDER GALLUCCI practices law in Michigan. He has published on Abraham Lincoln and served as a historical interpreter at a World War II fortification.