'We Have Proposed No Professor of Divinity': Jefferson on Education and Religion
Cameron Addis

As a politician, educator, theologian and architect, Jefferson did more than any one person to establish the boundaries and role of religion in American public schools, and his ideas have informed our key debates ever since.  He inspired both attorneys, for instance, in the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial, our most famous educational controversy.  Liberals saw the trial as a clear-cut case pitting Scopes’ defender, Clarence Darrow, as champion of Jeffersonian freedom, against William Jennings Bryan, reactionary prosecutor of a Tennessee evolution ban that symbolized the ignorance their hero overthrew.  But Bryan was a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian; his last stop before Dayton, Tennessee was a pilgrimage to Monticello, where he called the Sage “the greatest statesman our country had produced.”  Bryan’s Jeffersonian democracy included the will of the majority to exercise freedom and promote its favored religion with public support.  If Jefferson was right that the government couldn’t coerce religious beliefs, what gave it the right to push Darwin’s agnosticism and his disturbing association of men with monkeys on an unwilling public?  For Bryan, Jefferson loved the truth and would have thus favored Creationism.  Darrow, of course, drew out another side of Jefferson:

<>The state of Tennessee, under an honest and fair interpretation of the constitution, has no more right to teach the Bible as the divine book than that the Koran is one, or the book of Mormons, or the book of Confucius, or the Buddha, or Emerson’s Essays, or any one of the 10,000 books to which human souls have gone for consolation and aid in their troubles. Are they going to cut them out? They could only by violating the constitution, which is as old and as wise as Jefferson.

The trial illustrated the ongoing presence of Jefferson on all matters relating to religion and education, and the tendency to enlist him selectively.

Just as Jefferson embodied and anticipated future conflicts like slavery and abolition, and states’ rights and unionism, so too his views on religion in public education informed both parties in the Scopes trial.  [And] In our case, shuttling back and forth between the 21st and 18th centuries is complicated by the interjection of evolutionary theory, passage of the 14th amendment, growth of the government and schools, and an increasingly pluralistic citizenry.  That’s why Jefferson encouraged future generations to emancipate themselves from the past to solve their own problems.  But we live under the Constitution his generation created and must come to terms with his role in framing the 1st Amendment, as well as his efforts planning public education and founding one of our nation’s most influential schools, the University of Virginia.  After the 1940s, courts touched on all these subjects to expound the religious freedom clause.  Inevitably justices became Jefferson scholars in order to sort out their views on perennial school controversies. 

Jefferson’s thinking on church-state relations was forged in the crucible of revolutionary Virginia.  As Governor he made numerous concessions to existing religious laws, but quickly arrived at the separationist stance he maintained throughout his career.  Moving beyond mere calls for toleration within an establishment, he drafted a bill for full-blown religious freedom in 1777 that failed passage.  Simultaneously, he initiated his first education bill, which called for broad-based schooling to maintain an informed citizenry.  This too failed, partly because it proposed a humanist curriculum.  He explained in Notes on the State of Virginia that he felt young minds were insufficiently developed for anything but indoctrination on religious matters, and preferred instead that they learn history and language in primary schools.  As board member at his alma mater, the College of William & Mary, Jefferson reduced the divinity department and got rid of the education professor because he feared Anglican influence on local elementary teachers.  But because he valued knowledge about religions, Jefferson also called for a post in ecclesiastical history.  

This pattern marked his subsequent plans for public education: the Jeffersonian curriculum was somewhat inconsistent but generally undermined sectarian authority while endorsing broader, non-doctrinal religious studies.  His last comprehensive education plan in 1817 disallowed any state-sponsored “religious instruction, reading or exercise.”

The Rockfish Gap Report of 1818, that outlined the curriculum of the University of Virginia, reversed the traditional role of western colleges by emphasizing scientific over Scriptural revelation.  It stated that: "In conformity with the principles of Virginia’s Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing . . . we have proposed no professor of divinity . . . proofs of the being of God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics.”  And Jefferson might have mentioned the province of science, for the school was conceived as an Enlightenment temple; the keystone Rotunda displaced the traditional college chapel with a library and proposed planetarium.  He set aside an undecorated room in the basement for voluntary prayer, drawing and music, but barred Sunday services. 

          He argued that this wasn’t a debate between secular amorality and religious morality, at least not a morality enmeshed in ancient mythologies.  He believed that exposure to ethical writers, history and science could cultivate inborn moral precepts, and he sought a universal constellation of values that “all sects could agree on.”  His clearest enunciation of an ethical principle came in his plans for UVA, when he described a universal religion that promoted “peace, reason and morality,” but Jefferson no doubt oversimplified the situation when he wrote that the “dogmas on which the particular religions differ . . . are unconnected to morality.”  The multitude of American religions, even more pronounced in our time, makes any mutually satisfactory agreement impossible, but Jefferson’s stab at distilling broadly-defined core ethics remains a worthy cause appropriate to a large, diverse nation - arguably the only approach befitting a true republic.  He recognized that the contradictory details of all organized religions presented, as he called it, “artificial systems that had to be swept clean.”

          Virginia’s unique religious libertarianism made UVA’s ethical universalism and humanist curriculum viable.  By reviving Jefferson’s earlier bill as the 1786 Statute of Religious Freedom, Virginia took the lead among the former colonies in firmly disestablishing state religion, precluding even a non-denominational inter-Protestant establishment, and outlawing religious discrimination against anybody, including, as they put it, “Jew, Muhametan & Hindu."  The landmark statute extended spiritual freedom beyond anything enjoyed in Europe at the time, then became the model on which Madison based the 1st Amendment.  Though in ParisPhiladelphia convention, Jefferson’s indirect role in the ratification of the Constitution is indisputable, and his contemporary critics acknowledged just that.  In his letters Jefferson lobbied Madison to include a bill of rights, mentioning religious freedom as a main concern.  He signed off on Madison’s first draft, which was simplified to: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Either version presented potential conflict between the clauses.  By barring an elected local school board from mandating Creationism, is the government prohibiting the free and democratic exercise of religion?  Or, is a public school violating the establishment clause by using taxes to promote religion on the government’s behalf?  It’s proven difficult to reconcile the two clauses, but when courts enlist Jefferson, it’s usually on behalf of separationism, emphasizing the anti-establishment prohibition.

Jefferson maintained his separationist stance as President.  His most famous exposition on the 1st  Critics of separationism point to the unofficial nature of this letter; but, the Danbury letter is consistent with what he said elsewhere. Amendment came in an 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, where he argued that government power reaches “actions only and not opinions,” and that the establishment clause “erected a wall of separation between church and state.” 

          When Pat Robertson spoke before the Senate on behalf of President Reagan’s school prayer amendment in 1982, he wrongly assumed that earlier Baptists disliked religious freedom, testifying that the Danbury Baptists “aroused [Jefferson’s] ire” by criticizing his policy and that the President fired the note off in haste.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Jefferson was responding to a complimentary note from Baptists who resented New England’s ongoing Congregationalist establishment -- a note he received the same day as the infamous 1,235 lb. “mammoth cheese” from Cheshire, Massachusetts Baptists who likewise thanked him for his support of religious freedom.  The Danbury group condemned his Federalist rivals for calling Jefferson an “enemy of religion” because he “dared not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah.”  Jefferson put a lot of thought into a response intended for public consumption, hoping to fire a shot across the northeastern Federalist bow without sounding so irreligious as to offend the region’s Christian Democratic-Republicans.  When he passed his reply to Attorney General Levi Lincoln to proof, he expressed gratitude that his response offered “an occasion . . . which I have long wished to find” to set matters straight, that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”         

Still, the Baptists and Jefferson both recognized that he could only help guard against encroachments by the national government, for the Bill of Rights did not then apply to states, especially the original thirteen.  The Baptists only hoped that Virginia’s example would “shine and prevail.”  Today’s Fundamentalists can consequently point to the early state establishments, but they do so misleadingly when they fail to mention the passage of the 14th amendment, and that states phased out establishments anyway by the 1830s. 

One key outcome of the Civil War was that later judges interpreted the 14th [civil rights] Amendment of 1868 as extending the Bill of Rights to all states.  Jefferson’s “wall of separation” phrase entered the judicial lexicon eleven years later in the 1879 Reynolds case outlawing Mormon polygamy, but passed into obscurity for nearly seventy years as the Court kept the 14th weak to sanction Jim Crow.  In the meantime, with the explosive growth of public schools, moderate Christian indoctrination became an accepted part of many curriculums.  Schools were then jarred by the sudden application of the religious establishment clause after World War II.

In the Everson case of 1947, involving public funds for parochial school busing, Justice Hugo Black drew on the Danbury letter and Reynolds precedents to explain that the “first amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state.  That wall must be kept high and impregnable.  We could not approve the slightest breach.”  The Court re-affirmed that strict stance the following year when atheist Vashti McCollum got a Champaign, Illinois law overturned after complaining that classmates harassed her 4th-grade son for not attending optional release-time religious exercises.  In his concurring opinion, Felix Frankfurter put it simply: “separation means separation, not something else.”  But like William Jennings Bryan, other judges saw a different Jefferson.  Stanley Reed stressed that Jefferson’s sweeping generalities did not jibe with his application of those principles at UVA, which allowed some religious instruction, and pointed to his seminary-on-the-confines plan. 

Largely unrealized until much later, Jefferson’s 1822 plan to encircle UVA’s periphery with independent seminaries was a creative solution to the problem of integrating religion with public education.  Faced with increasing clerical opposition to the school, Jefferson borrowed on others’ ideas and invited any denomination that wished to build a school on the campus periphery.  Seminarians could attend classes for free while university students could, in turn, voluntarily study at seminaries of their own choosing.  In the early 1950s, the plan influenced the Court to stray from Black and Frankfurter’s strict separationism.  Led by Justice Reed, they upheld a New York release-time program similar to Illinois’ in Zorach v. Clauson.  This time, though, the exercises were held off school grounds, similar to Jefferson’s seminaries. 

The Zorach case set the tone for coming years when, instead of a high and impregnable wall, the Court’s stance more closely resembled UVA’s serpentine walls.  By the 1960s and 70’s most judges shared Warren Burger’s view of the wall metaphor as “blurred, indistinct and variable,” but still a “useful signpost.”  William Brennan carried the separationist torch, citing Jefferson’s admonition against putting the Bible in children’s hands, and arguing that mixing church and state also violated sectarian interests, just as Roger Williams had argued in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. 

Jefferson continued as exhibit 1A in church-state-school cases through the 1980s.  When the Court struck down an Alabama law authorizing a moment of silence in its schools, dissenter William Rehnquist vented his frustration at the unwarranted intrusion of the Danbury letter into the Constitutional record.  Looking back over forty years of rulings on the establishment clause leading up to Wallace v. Jaffree in 1985, he blamed the Court’s over-reliance on Jefferson’s letter for defying tradition and secularizing the nations’ public schools -- calling it “bad history.”  If Rehnquist’s views were not those of a true “moral majority,” he at least spoke for a powerful, vocal and growing minority that helped elect Ronald Reagan, who, in turn, nominated Rehnquist for Chief Justice in 1986.  And his questioning of Jefferson as a Constitutional authority was justifiable given his indirect connection to the Bill of Rights.  But neither Burger nor Brennan bought Rehnquist’s logic, or his call to “abandon the wall altogether.”  Brennan argued that, for the most part, the government could remain neutral on religion in exactly the way Jefferson advised.  And in some areas, including prayer and access to facilities for religious groups, the schools and courts have managed reasonable compromises.  The tougher areas to maintain neutrality – controversies over evolution and the teaching of religion – involve subjects that absorbed Jefferson personally: paleontology, the Bible and school curriculums.

It’s too bad that he died when evolutionary theory was in its infancy, because Jefferson was both an avid fossil collector and ruminator on the religious implications of science.  His interest in mastodons, or Wooly Mammoths, stemmed from his rebuttal to the French naturalist Buffon about the degenerative aspects of the North American environment in Notes on Virginia.   As President he coveted the nearly intact “incognitum” his friend Charles Willson Peale excavated near Newburgh, New York.  Like a modern-day cryptozoologist, his passion was for discovering new creatures, not closing the book on dead ones, and his faith in the mastodon’s continued existence spurred his interest in the west; if Lewis and Clark didn’t have enough to worry about already, he told them to keep their eyes peeled for a living mammoth. 

But given his optimistic hopes about public education diffusing knowledge, it’s fortunate Jefferson’s not around to witness the disjuncture between the ever-growing evidence to support evolutionary theory, and the public’s skepticism toward what many view as nonsense. Their rejection of evolution defies the simple red-blue political partisanship often described by cultural warriors.  Polls show that a thin majority of Democrats voting for John Kerry in 2004 believe creationism should be taught alongside evolution, while around 1/3rd of college students believe humans originated in the Garden of Eden.  Millions of Christians, meanwhile, following the lead of the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, reconcile their faith with evolution.  Karen Epperson, John Scopes’ heir apparent in the landmark 1968 Arkansas case that overturned that states’ evolution ban, was a devout Presbyterian who taught 10th-grade biology. 

More fundamental creationists, who reject evolution, can seize on Jefferson’s belief in the permanence of species.  Like them, he believed in a single act of creation.  The notion that animals like the mastodon came and went violated his deistic view of a perfect creator.  “For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost,” he wrote, “another and another might be lost, till this whole system of things should evanish piece-meal.”  But his views were buttressed by the prevailing science of the time and physical evidence available to him, not just on religious faith; he was trying to disprove extinction theory with fossils, after all, not Scripture.  Based on his own research into Indian linguistics and reading of Buffon, Jefferson concluded that the earth was much older than Genesis describes, and finally came to accept extinction.

We can safely assume that if Jefferson had lived another thirty-five years, he would have embraced some version of natural selection.  Most likely he would have been engaged in active letter-writing exchanges with Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace as they scoured the earth for flora and fauna, while back on the hilltop he queried learned dinner guests about the latest presentations before the Royal Society.  Another half century would have driven the Sage further into debt as he outbid Yale and the Smithsonian for western dinosaur bones and remodeled Monticello yet again, expanding the entrance hall to display a tyrannosaurus rex. 

The bigger, unanswerable question is how a full digestion of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man would have disrupted Jefferson’s natural theology.  At UVA he countered religious skepticism by encouraging moderate Enlightenment deism and belief in a perceptible order.  But Jefferson never wrestled with Darwin’s critique of the natural religion both were reared on: that it failed to account for waste, pain and cruelty in the living world.  When Jefferson came around to accept extinction, it only increased his respect for the ability of a dynamic creator to “renovate” and “regenerate” as he put it.  If anything this enlivened his appreciation for the divine, infusing the static “clockmaker universe” of the older European Enlightenment with what came to be called the “vital principle.”  Toward the end of his life, Jefferson shared his reconstructed deism with John Adams:

I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.          

<>          The letter could serve as a masthead for the “New Creationist” theory of Intelligent Design.  This latest version of the anti-evolutionist cause has itself evolved, adapting to the hostile legal environment of the modern courts.  In public, Creationists have retreated to a Jeffersonian religion promoted, most famously, by William Paley in Natural Theology in 1802 -- a text that inspired Darwin at Cambridge but that he rejected later on.  Paley’s argument followed a direct line to an anthropomorphic deity: “The marks of the designer are too strong to be got over.  Design must have had a designer.  That designer must have been a person.  That person is GOD.”  The I.D. movement is likewise grounded, but knows that such direct religious reference would doom it in the courts, so it remains officially agnostic.  It merely stresses the inability of random natural selection to fully explain evolution and argues for the “irreducible complexities” of organisms like bacteria propelled by a flagellar mechanism seemingly more intricate than an outboard rotary motor.  Its critics, meanwhile, charge that the theory depicts a bungling God constantly having to repair his own errors, and anyway fails to account for who created the Creator.  What both its supporters and detractors often misunderstand is that I.D. shoots the gap on focused, detailed problems within evolutionary theory, much the same way that theologians in Paley’s day focused on the miraculous eyeball rather than Genesis.  It claims that, similar to computers, the informational systems used by DNA to pass on information are sufficiently patterned to warrant a designer as their only explanation; and that arguing otherwise is analogous to saying newspapers are created merely by the interaction of ink and paper.  The field is researched by a small number of qualified scientists from leading universities, challenging orthodoxy in the best spirit of the scientific tradition.  But there is strong evidence that its leaders are using I.D. as, in their own words, a so-called “thin edge of the wedge” to debunk evolution and bring science curriculums in line with Christianity.

In the high-profile Kitzmiller v. Dover [Pa.] Schools case of 2005, where parents overturned I.D.’s teaching, the Republican district judge, 2002 Bush appointee John Jones, not only saw through it as a non-scientific “sham,” he lambasted the board for what he called their “striking ignorance” and “breathtaking inanity.”  If Darrow cornered Bryan in Dayton, Tennessee, it’s frightening to think what he might have done with Dover’s school board.  One said he’d heard kids were being taught that “bears turned into whales,” while another stated point-blank she had zero curiosity about anything, including her own religion.  The board’s curriculum committee chair said she thought we should Christianize science because the country wasn’t founded by Muslims or Darwinians.

I.D.’s main promoter and think-tank, Seattle’s Discovery Institute, distanced itself from the specific way it was taught in Dover but criticized the “activist federal judge” for “imposing censorship.”  The Institute resented having their views conflated with the board’s, but probably shouldn’t have associated with them even indirectly, especially given Pat Robertson’s embarrassing postlude about God wreaking vengeance on Dover’s residents. 

Still, whatever their views, district school boards vindicate Jefferson’s insistence on local democracy.  In Pennsylvania, Kansas, and brewing controversies across the country, Jeffersonian devotion to science threatens to run aground on the shoals of Jeffersonian democracy.  Journalist Walter Lippmann asked if the two could co-exist on the heels of the Scopes trial when he lectured at UVA.  Assuming the role of devil’s advocate by imagining a dialogue between Bryan, Jefferson and Socrates atop Mt. Olympus, the skeptical gadfly of public wisdom reminded the audience that Bryan arrived at his advocacy of Tennessee’s evolution ban on the same premise that Jefferson employed in Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom: so that citizens would not be compelled to pay taxes for the propagation of opinions they don’t believe in.  Jefferson rarely conceded this contradiction, but he hinted at it when wrote that his reason for excluding clerics from teaching was to “keep elementary education out of the hands of fanaticizing preachers, who in county elections would be universally chosen."  And he encountered his fair share of democratic opposition to UVA. 

If Jefferson were alive today, he would no doubt be torn between defending the right of citizens to decide such matters on their own, and lamenting that those decisions will rob their young of a properly informed education.  It’s impossible to tell because we cannot know for sure how his deism would’ve been impacted by the random mechanisms of natural selection, or what he would have thought of the 14th amendment’s incursions into states’ rights.  We can safely presume that Jefferson the educator would have stuck with the advice he gave his nephew Peter Carr, to “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.” 

On this note conservatives challenge orthodox evolutionists to “teach the debate.”  With no contrary evidence or demonstrable alternative on the table, it’s understandable why science teachers hesitate to dignify New Creationist claims with a formal classroom response, or “equal treatment,” but the inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition should always welcome rather than resist an open argument.  If we taught the debate, everyone would profit from short-term political reconciliation and better long-term understandings of evolution, agnosticism and Christianity.

          One option is to teach evolution, I.D. and old-fashioned Adam’s Rib Creationism comparatively in science classes, exposing all students directly to what real science is all about, likely resulting in a higher-than-current percentage of the population adhering to evolution.  Others argue the science teacher’s job is to explain how evolution dovetails with geology and biology and buttresses genetics, agriculture and medicine, not to shape the students’ moral rectitude or explain how evolution contradicts fundamentalism. 

          The question of where such discussions do belong leads us to a gaping hole in our public schools that Jefferson can help us fill.  Keep in mind that, while Jefferson thought of public religious indoctrination as inappropriate, he advocated religious instruction and ethics, or moral philosophy, courses among older students.  He called religion “the most interesting and important subject, and the most incumbent on the students’ study and investigation.”  He would be disappointed to find that most of today’s students, including both those who attend only their family’s church or none at all, share in common basic religious illiteracy.  Setting aside their private well-being, understood by Jefferson as their own responsibility and that of their family’s, they take that ignorance with them into a public sphere saturated with religious content, overseas into wars against people of different faiths, and into colleges where all their studies are less comprehensible without basic religious grounding.  Omission of religion instruction from curriculums does not amount to neutrality so much as a stance in favor of collective ignorance. 

Rather than ethics, the proper arena for such studies would be one-year course on religion, similar to that described at the outset by Clarence Darrow or the graduate seminary classes nicknamed “Buddha for Baptists.”  Jefferson hoped to fill what he called this “chasm” with his seminary-on-the-confines plan.  Today such a course should be mandatory, but elective status would keep it more safely line with current law.  The subject matter could include selected readings from the world’s major religious texts, their impact on science, history, literature, art and music, and influential theories on the psychology, philosophy and sociology of religion.  Another unit could focus on schisms within major traditions, like Protestant-Catholic and Sunni-Shi’ite.  In studying how apocalyptic theories impact current relations among Jews, Muslims and Christians, students could draw on the range of Jefferson’s own religious library, which included the Koran and books on prophecy, the millennium, and the books of Daniel and Revelation.  He also had catechisms, maps, books on festivals and fasting days and eighteen volumes of sermons.  He read atheist and Calvinist writers he disagreed with.  He amassed hundreds of Christian texts, scriptures and apologetics while writing the Jefferson Bible, many in Greek and Hebrew.  In 1824, just two years before his death and a year before UVA opened, Jefferson compiled a long list of writers for ethics courses - both Christian and Pagan - but wanted Madison, as a former divinity student, in charge of which theology books would fill the Rotunda library to support moral philosophy.  Old and enfeebled, Jefferson was nonetheless consumed with UVA’s construction and curriculum and helped unpack, catalogue and arrange books as they arrived from Boston.    Today’s high schools should contain similarly broad collections.  It was for books like this that Jefferson dreamt of small mobile libraries to spread Enlightenment to the demos.  And modern courses could draw on the spirit of UVA’s seminary-on-the-confines idea, if not in the strict physical sense: students could take field trips to churches they otherwise would never attend and report back on their experiences.

          If taught in a suitably broad framework, religion courses are one area where public schools could gain an upper hand over many private schools or most home schooling in preparing students for the world.  But as European countries are currently finding as they assimilate Muslim immigrants, religion in public schools is inherently problematic.  Exposure to “the enemies’ religion,” as commentator Bill O’Reilly called Islam, could drive more Christians and Jews into private schools.  And mostly homogenous districts can use such courses as doctrinal vehicles.  This happened recently in Texas, where students in over fifty districts were assigned a fundamentalist textbook called The Bible in History and Literature.  Written mainly by scholars from un-accredited distance learning schools, and endorsed by “experts” like Phyllis Schlafly, Holly Coors and Chuck Norris, the un-footnoted text included a bogus NASA claim that Joshua made the Sun stand still.  David Barton, who has a B.A. from Oral Roberts but no graduate training in either history or politics, wrote the chapter on America’s Christian heritage.  Barton means well, but his moral code does not restrict him from putting words into the mouths of the Founding Fathers.  He ‘fessed up to these fabrications after their circulation on conservative talk radio brought them to the attention of scholars who could not trace down Jefferson scribing, “I have always said and always say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens,” or Madison stating that “we’ve staked the whole future of American civilization . . . [on] the Ten Commandments of God.”      

            If Barton’s scholarship does not match up to Madison’s UVA library list, more balanced, quality texts are out there.  The publications of the Bible Literacy Project are respected by Christians and non-Christians alike, and the Library of Congress’ fair and informed Religion and the Founding of the American Republic exhibit is on-line. 

While it’s true that the inclusion of such materials offends separationists who oppose any state-sponsored mention of religion, and fundamentalists who consider wide exposure an “attack on Christianity,” it does not follow that those groups should dictate public school curriculums.  But if Jefferson and Madison rejected narrow denominationalism at UVA because they feared an "an arena of theological gladiators,” too ecumenical a view might cause similar problems.  As Socrates reminded Jefferson in Lippmann’s mock debate, the major appeal of organized religions is certainty, and a broad-ranging course could allow doubts to creep into the students’ minds.  If too many parents object to that, then we’ll reinvent the constitutional part of the Jeffersonian wheel and conclude we were better off leaving religion out of the schools altogether.  In that event the separationist stance will re-emerge stronger and better appreciated than ever before.   

      Many people have maintained that stance from Roger Williams’ day forward, but it was Jefferson who most famously applied it to public education.  And being a Founding Father and framer of the 1st Amendment lends him currency across a wide spectrum, more in fact than he enjoyed in his own lifetime when his contemporaries rightly understood him as a threat to dogmatism.  Why so many people care about his opinions in the first place is a fair question, especially given Jefferson’s absence from the Philadelphia convention (original intent is problematic enough for those that were there).   But if we can’t abandon his views as Judge Rehnquist hoped in 1985, then we should not exclude non-doctrinal religion from public schools.  Though we will never arrive at a set of morals “all sects agree on,” Jefferson’s insistence on thinking big provides us with the best way to cope with America’s unique combination of religious passion and pluralism and the surest base from which to negotiate with more militarized sects internationally.  One can rightly point to Jefferson the politician and educator crossing the church-state line here and there, but he was always a powerful rejoinder to the notion that moral rectitude must be predicated on sectarian orthodoxy – that anything broader devolves into mushy relativism.  On the contrary, his deepest conviction was that spiritual provincialism eroded the collective intellect and cheapened morality.  Jefferson acknowledged that if we had any reasonable way of knowing which narrow religion was right, that would be a different story; but wrote that if “ours is but one of [a] thousand,” we should look across cultures and try, however imperfectly, to distill what’s essential and constructive in world faiths.  In the meantime we should teach reason, because only reason will allow us to talk across cultures, especially about religion.  Today’s movement to underscore America’s Christian identity stops short of endorsing an outright establishment, but continues its assault on secular schools.  The Christian Right wants to either eradicate the public system or modify it the same way that Jefferson’s 19th-century successors at UVA honored his ecumenical spirit only within a de facto inter-Protestant establishment.  Jerry Falwell wrote that he hoped “to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we don’t have public schools.  The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.”  In our day such a quasi-theocracy would presumably be broadened to include Jews, Catholics and, perhaps, Mormons (the Abrahamic faiths minus Islam).  Today’s fundamentalists push for the same things as Islamic clerics – increased theocracy and Scripture in the classrooms – undermining our efforts to help others reconcile religious conflict within democratic frameworks in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  Given the pluralism of our own society and those we occupy or influence, we’re better served orienting our public classrooms around Jefferson’s model of non-indoctrination, informed mutual respect and universal morals, than to gravitate toward those of medieval Europe, the Taliban or the Moral Majority.  Those reactionary models predicate virtue on an uninformed citizenry – the opposite of Jefferson’s approach.