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Keeping the Faith

Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation,” the Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote in a 1980 book Listen, America! But he might have quarreled with the variety of Christianity practiced by at least one of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Falwell, a Baptist fundamentalist, believed that the Bible was literally the word of God. Jefferson twice edited the Bible, taking a knife and cutting out the parts he felt were “superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.” As Peter Carlson points out in our cover story, “The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson,” Jefferson’s religious views, the product of lifelong Bible study and contemplation, were eccentric and personal, and conformed to no church’s doctrine. Today, historians still debate the meaning of “Jefferson’s Bible,” but they agree that his most heartfelt religious belief was that there should be a separation of church and state. Ironically, that belief made Jefferson a hero to the Virginia Baptists of his day—Falwell’s theological forefathers—who resented that their tax money was used to support the state’s officially sanctioned Anglican Church.