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What Thomas Jefferson got wrong: The best way to serve the nation we love

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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What Thomas Jefferson got wrong
Jefferson Memorial
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It is a nondescript room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Standing behind a plexiglass wall, I could see a table with chairs, a fireplace, and a brown wooden armoire.

Thomas Jefferson stayed at this site for about a hundred days in 1776. It was here that he wrote three drafts of the Virginia Constitution, produced committee reports, authored a position paper, and maintained personal correspondence. 

And it was here that he completed the Declaration of Independence

The house where he stayed for those fateful days was torn down in 1883 but reconstructed by the National Park Service for America’s bicentennial in 1976. As a result, I was looking at a replica of Jefferson’s actual workspace. It was deeply moving to stand at the site where a document that changed history was authored. 

“When Thomas Jefferson dined alone” 

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men America has ever known. I have read four biographies of him and remain deeply impressed with his genius. 

When I visited Monticello, the home in Virginia he designed, I was struck by the technological sophistication of his architectural brilliance. Jefferson served our country as the author of our Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. He was secretary of state under President Washington, vice president under John Adams, and president of the United States. He was also the father of the University of Virginia. 

He could speak English, French, Italian, and Latin and could read Greek and Spanish. John F. Kennedy famously told a dinner gathering of Nobel Prize winners that the event represented “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” 

However, he also enslaved more than six hundred people over the course of his life. Years after his wife’s death, he fathered at least six children by his slave, Sally Hemings. In fact, as he worked to finish his Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, he was accompanied by his enslaved servant, Bob Hemings

I believe the contradictions embodied by Thomas Jefferson and reflected in our nation across more than two centuries are rooted in a single word enshrined in his Declaration. 

“The pursuit of Happiness” 

The most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

These were truly revolutionary words. 

In a time when many nations, including Great Britain, believed that a person’s life, liberty, and happiness were subordinated to the will of the monarch and authority of the state, Jefferson claimed that these were “unalienable Rights.” And he stated that these “truths” were “self-evident,” not derived from the government. 

But imagine the difference in our nation if he had chosen “holiness” instead of “happiness.” 

“Religion and morality are indispensable supports” 

In our third century past the adoption of Jefferson’s declaration, our culture has moved dramatically away from the Judeo-Christian worldview upon which our democracy was founded. 

In his Farewell Address (September 19, 1796), President Washington told the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” John Adams claimed that “the general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.” 

Even Thomas Jefferson, whose faith commitments have been the subject of much controversy, insisted: “Injustice in government undermines the foundations of a society. A nation, therefore, must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality.” 

Today, however, “the pursuit of happiness” defines for many the right to “life” and “liberty.” 

If we must choose between happiness and life with regard to the unborn, many choose happiness and endorse abortion. If we must choose between happiness and liberty with regard to the conflict between sexual freedom and religious freedom, many choose the first and deny the second. 

“The majority who participate” 

I love America and thank God for the privilege of living in my country. When posting our flag outside our home this week in honor of July 4, I was filled with gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many to defend our freedom. As I watch the Fourth of July parades and festivities today, I will join millions of others in celebrating our country. 

Choose holiness over happiness.

However, I also believe that the greatest way I can serve our nation is by helping to meet her greatest need. And I am convinced that America’s greatest need is for a spiritual and moral awakening that would lead us to choose holiness over happiness. 

I also know that holiness starts with me. And with you. We can claim today our Father’s promise: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). 

Would you join me in obedience to God’s call today? 

Thomas Jefferson noted: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” 

For the good of our souls and our nation, let’s participate in a true awakening of holiness in America, to the glory of God.