Thomas Jefferson is tagged with originating the corrosive fallacy, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” John Leland, influential preacher of the then nascent Baptists, helped further propagate Jefferson’s fallacy by giving it church sanction. The pervasive and pernicious effect of error is seen in that Jefferson’s fallacy is entrenched in our society today, and is still widely propagated by Baptist traditionalists. It has contributed greatly to the corruption of our nation.
In Jefferson’s “country” of Virginia, involvement of civil government in the affairs of religion was common. As Jefferson bemoaned in his Notes on the State of Virginia,
“By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father’s right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.”
It must be pointed out that there was partial truth in Jefferson’s proposition. To say, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” harmonizes with Holy Writ (Romans 13). The problem was in labeling clear heresy “harmless.” We are clearly taught that the things Jefferson would trivialize cause great social harm.
“Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out, even strife and dishonor will cease.”
Proverbs 22:10 NASB
“For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain.”
Titus 1:10-11 NASB
“He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed.”
Exodus 22:20 NASB
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer…”
Revelation 20:1-3 NASB
Jefferson’s fallacy was at root individualistic and naive. If we were all atomistic creatures with no social nature, Jefferson’s fallacy might make sense. But we are not. We are all interdependent and mutually influential. As any business leader would readily acknowledge, complaining by one spreads to all. Likewise, faith and unbelief are contagious. It is one thing to say, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But what if your neighbor is saying this to a group of kindergarten children, or someone who is mentally weak? Society is not made up solely of mentally and Scripturally acute individuals. This just speaks to the social aspect. Much more could be said about the active intervention of God’s wrath. We must not be deceived, “bad company corrupts good morals.”
Jefferson was wrong. Government must throttle clear Scriptural heresy if that government and those it governs hope to survive.