Opinion: When Baptists voted for a heretic
When Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, Baptists represented one of his most reliable constituencies. Jefferson’s Baptist supporters knew that the president did not share their evangelical faith, yet they saw him as a great friend of religious liberty. After Jefferson was inaugurated, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote him and said they had “reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of state out of that good will which he bears to the millions which you preside over.”
The Baptist alliance with Thomas Jefferson helps illuminate recent controversies over Pastor Robert Jeffress’s negative comments about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. It reminds us that there was a time when conservative Baptists were willing to support a presidential candidate whose personal beliefs starkly differed from their own.
As of 1800, Jefferson was still fairly quiet about his religious skepticism. (After he retired from politics, it became clear that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ, the Trinity or the miracles in the Bible, including Jesus’ resurrection.) But Jefferson had already said enough to convince some Federalist opponents that he did not believe in traditional Christianity.
So why would the Baptists of 1800 support a man whom opponents called a “howling atheist,” while some Baptists today refuse to support Romney because of his Mormonism?
The difference is that Baptists in 1800 understood that politics often requires making alliances with people outside the evangelical fold, in the interests of shared public priorities. For the Baptist supporters of Jefferson, the top priority was religious liberty.