“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” —Thomas Jefferson
I am one of Thomas Jefferson’s biggest fans. Nevertheless, his works are entwined with concepts and ideas that can easily be taken out of context…or, are flat out wrong. In one context his words display great wisdom. Taken in another they are seductive and pernicious. I will take as an example a section from his Notes on the State of Virginia Query XVII.
The section begins, “Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum [moral censor] over each other.” Jefferson was speaking in the context of the Christianity of his time, a time in which “sects” or what we now call denominations, were relatively few but on the rise. Increasing literacy, increasing publication of ideas, and increasing freedom of inquiry, coupled with the ingrained Protestant “ethic” of leaning hard on one’s understanding gained from self-study of Scripture provided the recipe for the multiplication of sects. Jefferson was understandably concerned about how government should deal with this phenomenon. Rightly, he saw the “iron sharpens iron” effect of the sects when placed on a plane of equality in reference to the government. The sects had a beneficial effect in that they set into motion the essential activity of mutual correction within the Christian community. However, Jefferson also saw a problem. Ally an exclusive sect with the government and you empower them to silence all corrective opposition in pursuit of establishing their exclusive understanding of Christianity in every bit and detail, imposing “uniformity” as Jefferson called it. The historical record no doubt had provided some bad examples from whenever this exclusive alliance was in place, which led Jefferson to ask, “Is uniformity attainable?” His answer, “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” Not pretty. That said, it should be noted that we are never exhorted by Christ to pursue uniformity. Unity is the constant and obtainable goal we are given, and it is the unity produced by the Spirit, not by coercion of the sword. Unity is possible even while our understandings may differ. It only requires a common commitment to the Lordship of Christ, a humble recognition that our individual understandings are limited, and a sensibility to the reality that Christ works through diverse members of his body to expand our understanding—and promote interdependence. We cannot grow in right understanding without the interaction of others, and in order to grow we must have room to mentally grow—i.e. Liberty. It should be obvious we can never attain unity with non-Christian religions.
Capping off this section under examination, Jefferson poses another question, “What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” He is referring to the futility of trying to obtain uniformity through government enforcement of religious tenets. Government supporting and empowering an exclusive Christian sect helped propagate errors of doctrine in the past. This led to the ignorance of many—because it hindered vigilant doctrinal oversight and correction. Sounds good. However, Jefferson’s added complaint that it makes “the other half hypocrites,” can be misleading when applied to government in general. Jefferson was referring to those who “faked” belief in order to avoid government persecution. But before we jump on board with him, we should recognize that the making of hypocrites is part of the legitimate function of government. Given the wicked nature of man, the threat of government punishment is meant to restrain the outward acts of wicked men, to make them act good. When murderous tendencies reside in the heart of a man, we should be grateful for a government that makes him keep his muderous tendencies to himself, a government that makes him a hypocrite. Likewise, if a man believes and attempts to propagate socially harmful tenets of religion that are clearly false and contradict Scripture—as attested to by all Christian sects—government likewise has legitimacy to step in and make this man a hypocrite also. He can freely believe whatever he wants, but he cannot freely act to harm the morals of society. Making hypocrites of wicked men is the primary function of government as established by God.