"Thomas Jefferson", 1788, by John Trumbull (Monticello)
For 200 years, Thomas Jefferson and his Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom have stood at the center of our understanding of religious liberty and the First Amendment. Jefferson’s expansive vision—including his insistence that political freedom and free thought would be at risk if we did not establish a strict separation of church and state—enjoyed a near consensus of support at the Supreme Court and among historians until 1985 when Justice William Rehnquist called reliance on Jefferson “demonstrably incorrect” as a matter of history. Since then, Rehnquist’s call has been joined by a bevy of jurists and academics anxious to encourage renewed government involvement with religion.
John Ragosta, historian at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, takes up Rehnquist’s challenge to answer the question: How central was a Jeffersonian understanding to the early development of American religious freedom? Or, as critics claim, is the embrace of a separation of church and state a mid-20th century phenomenon?
Ragosta’s book, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, (University of Virginia Press) is available for sale and signing.