Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed

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For over one hundred 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 keep government out of the church and church out of government—enjoyed a near consensus of support at the Supreme Court and among historians, until Justice William Rehnquist called reliance on Jefferson ...

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Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed

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Overview

For over one hundred 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 keep government out of the church and church out of government—enjoyed a near consensus of support at the Supreme Court and among historians, until Justice William Rehnquist called reliance on Jefferson "demonstrably incorrect." Since then, Rehnquist’s call has been taken up by a bevy of jurists and academics anxious to encourage renewed government involvement with religion.

In Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, the historian and lawyer John Ragosta offers a vigorous defense of Jefferson’s advocacy for a strict separation of church and state. Beginning with a close look at Jefferson’s own religious evolution, Ragosta shows that deep religious beliefs were at the heart of Jefferson’s views on religious freedom. Basing his analysis on that Jeffersonian vision, Ragosta redefines our understanding of how and why the First Amendment was adopted. He shows how the amendment’s focus on maintaining the authority of states to regulate religious freedom demonstrates that a very strict restriction on federal action was intended. Ultimately revealing that the great sage demanded a firm separation of church and state but never sought a wholly secular public square, Ragosta provides a new perspective on Jefferson, the First Amendment, and religious liberty within the United States.

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ragosta, a professor of History at Hamilton College, adds the latest volume to his publisher's Jeffersonian America series with this scholarly work focusing on Jefferson's vision of religious freedom and how it has shaped the United States. Ragosta keeps a very tight focus; this isn't a book that considers Jefferson's scandalous relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, or, for that matter, anything else about his personal life. However, an engrossing first chapter ably attempts to explicate his spiritual philosophy. "Over time," Ragosta notes, "Jefferson's religious beliefs became increasingly nonconventional, but also increasingly a matter of deeply thought and deeply felt convictions". From that promising start, the book turns to the Bill of Rights and other pivotal documents regarding religious freedom which Jefferson created or collaborated on. It then considers the effect these documents have had on American policy and practice. Though Ragosta tries, this litany of law-making is a dry read, and the author's penchant for listing his points doesn't help. The final chapter, considering Jefferson's legacy, and the way it's been pushed and pulled to meet the requirements of those who wish to appear to be in line with their country's founding father, will capture readers' attention again and provides a thought-provoking conclusion. (Apr.)
Daily Progress

In a volume replete with striking sentences, paragraphs, and indeed, pages, Ragosta gives us nuggets of info many of us might not know.... At a time when there is a loud chorus singing the praises of an opposing view--a song dedicated to bringing religion into schools, the workplace, and politics--the author's research proves refreshing and reassuring.... The book I have reviewed is splendid. It is highly recommended.

Choice

Ragosta uses clever prose and an easy-to-follow writing style. He clearly states chapter theses at the outset, allowing readers to easily recognize and understand each chapter's purpose and the value of the evidence present. As a result, Ragosta successfully shows that religious freedom was indeed one of Jefferson's greatest legacies.

Choice

Ragosta uses clever prose and an easy-to-follow writing style. He clearly states chapter theses at the outset, allowing readers to easily recognize and understand each chapter's purpose and the value of the evidence present. As a result, Ragosta successfully shows that religious freedom was indeed one of Jefferson's greatest legacies.

Joyce Appleby

"John Ragosta offers a robust defense of the Jeffersonian legacy of religious liberty, using his careful exploration of its history to help us understand contemporary debates about the proper roles of church and state in American life."

Johann Neem

"For historians and legal scholars, Ragosta provides an important contribution to an ongoing discussion. He traces clearly how the Virginia experience, and Jefferson’s ideas, affected Madison and others when they framed the First Amendment of the Constitution. Excellent and meticulously done."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813933702
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 4/2/2013
  • Pages: 302
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John Ragosta is the Robert C. Vaughan Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

University of Virginia Press

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