Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed by John Ragosta (review)
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Thomas Jefferson, Religious freedom, Separation of church and state, Virginia

Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed. By John Ragosta. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. Pp. 293. Cloth, $39.50.)

In the past decade, an abundance of scholarship has redirected focus on the meanings and consequences of disestablishment following the American Revolution. Phillip Hamburger, Steven K. Green, Donald Drakeman, John Hutson, and Sarah Barringer Gordon have examined the multiple ways by which the separation of church and state were negotiated and defined. Undoubtedly, much of this scholarly interest has been spurred by the persistent ideological intensity that informs debates about religion and the public square, as well as by the recurrent internecine, denominational property disputes that have captured headlines and occupied the courts.

John Ragosta’s Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy America’s Creed contributes to this robust body of scholarship. It follows on the heels of [End Page 501] his 2010 monograph, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty, which emphasized the central roles played by Virginia’s religious dissenters during the Revolution. In Religious Freedom, Ragosta now turns to an ambitious examination of the ideological influence that Thomas Jefferson had on the development of the legal and constitutional doctrines of religious liberty, not just in Virginia but in the nation at large. Ragosta asserts the centrality of Jefferson’s ideas to understanding the fundamental historical meaning of religious freedom in America and contends that this Jeffersonian understanding created and informed a national consensus about the proper constitutional divisions between church and state.

At least, that is, until recently. Pointing to Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion in the 1985 case of Wallace v. Jaffree, Ragosta suggests that the Jeffersonian consensus has come under attack by judges and academics who seek to undermine the “high and solid wall between church and state” by casting the establishment clause of the First Amendment in opposition to its companion free exercise clause (2, 4). Given this apparently troubling dynamic, Ragosta explores whether or not Jefferson’s vision of religious liberty was as influential as the United States Supreme Court declared it was in the case of Reynolds v. United States (1879), when Justice Waite deemed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists to be authoritative statements defining the foundations of the First Amendment.

Ragosta begins his inquiry with a serious effort to analyze Jefferson’s often conflicted ideas about Christianity, which ultimately informed his conception of religious liberty. He portrays Jefferson in the common view as Enlightenment disciple of reason, but equally, and significantly, as someone steeped in the doctrines and practices of colonial Virginia’s established church, as well as someone who, after disestablishment, also affiliated himself with the newly organized Episcopal Church. These affiliations lend context but the portrait is certainly not one of a pietistic Jefferson. Instead, a theology of natural religion prevailed, with Jefferson appearing a self-professed Christian who disdained the doctrines of divinity and resurrection. Jefferson graciously bestows praise on Jesus for the universality of his moral teachings, but suggests that he would have done things a bit differently had the lot of mankind’s salvation fallen instead to the Sage of Monticello. Ragosta neatly exposes the arrogance [End Page 502] of Jefferson’s theology but is less explicit about its consequences. In re-conceptualizing liberty of conscience by conflating it with individual expression, Jefferson championed the heresy of creating God in one’s own image and thus cast his model of religious freedom in stark opposition to orthodox Christianity.

Ragosta does not pursue this particular vein of Jefferson’s legacy of religious freedom—especially its ramifications for the proliferation of evangelical Christianity—but instead focuses exclusively on constitutional matters that formed the intellectual consensus for the first two centuries of national history. Chapters 2 and 3 depict the social and political context that informed the enactment of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. They offer little information beyond a synthesis of the pioneering scholarship of Thomas Buckley and Rhys Isaac and a summary of Ragosta’s own previous...