This week a twitter feed for retiring United Methodist bishop William Willimon exclaimed: “[Thomas] Jefferson created a polity with religion completely free as long as it was personal and private… [creating] essentially [an] atheist national polity.” Earlier this year, Willimon, who’s returning to Duke University, faulted Jefferson for the “privatization” of God through the “modern democratic, liberal nation state in order to neutralize Christianity, to bury God in the confines of the self, to trivialize the Trinity, and to keep this governmentally troubling faith from going public.”
As Willimon asserted, the Jeffersonian experiment has created the “omnipotent state and its capitalist economy.” Of course, Jeffersonians believed in minimal government. And an omnipotent state is a contradiction to a free market economy. Although Methodist, Willimon belongs to the neo-Anabaptist perspective, most popularized by his popular Duke colleague Stanley Hauerwas, that demonizes American democracy while not offering any alternatives, except “the church.” Mainstream Christianity professes that God has ordained other institutions besides the church, such as the state, rightly ordered.
Sensibly, Willimon did note that the “government has found that Christians (well, any believer who thinks that his or her God might be more important than the state) are easier to manage if they will confine their faith to something within.” But this modern drive to privatize religion was launched by secularists and strict separationists, not Jeffersonians, who believed in a thriving civil society that included robust religious institutions. Religious enthusiasts and evangelicals of the early 19th century supported Jefferson and his party instead of the Federalists and the established churches of the eastern seaboard.