The political agendas of current President Donald Trump and the late president Thomas Jefferson have more than 200 years between them.
Within those years, America’s leaders have tended to stick to the roots of the founding fathers when regarding constitutional rights. Yet, when it comes to religion and education, Donald Trump and Jefferson tend to differ in ideals. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, spent much of his efforts contributing to the establishment of religious freedom and education prior to, and during his presidency. Jefferson’s passions for these two freedoms were fueled by the oppressions endured from Great Britain. As the soon-to-be United States of America was succeeding from British ties, Jefferson had an agenda full of creating a country where religion and education were considered a basic freedom for all. Donald Trump, although only halfway done with his first term, has taken a different route with religious freedom and education. He has taken strides towards decreasing federal funding for education and, at times, brings religion into his politics. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would see two of his greatest passions, education and religion, being shown little regard in the current presidency.
Even before his presidential term, Jefferson was making strides to implement natural rights into legislation. Beginning with religion, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson constructed the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. This bill spoke to natural right that Jefferson believed each individual had for practicing a religion. [footnoteRef:1] It stated his desire for there to be a complete separation of church and state. He noted the past dictations of other rules who used religion as a law, thus forcing others into suppression for practicing their own beliefs and into compliance with the beliefs of the state. His desire for splitting the powers of religion and state are found directly in Jefferson’s drafted bill, Exempting Dissenters from Contributing to the support of the Church. In this bill, Jefferson addresses the dissenters from the Church of England who had previously been obliged to give contributions to the state in support of the Church. He goes on to explain that there is not to be any forced support of a church created through the government, and that all persons are to be free to support a religion of their choosing if they so desire. This bill was not to discourage the religious from worshiping, but to ensure that there would be no cross over between state and religion. Jefferson, a believer in Christianity himself, saw through the examples of Great Britain, where declaring a national religion caused the oppression of the religious human right which Jefferson believed to be a natural, God-given freedom.
The Johnson Amendment of 1954 is a provision in the U.S. tax regulations created in 1954. This amendment states that churches are not able to endorse a political candidate. This makes it so believers can donate parts of their salary to their place of worship and the church can be considered tax-exempt. The donors can thus also deduct the money they gave from their salaries to be taxed. This amendment was created well past the time of Jefferson, however, it still coincides with his beliefs in separating church and state, making it safe to assume that Jefferson would be in-favor of the amendment. On the other hand, the amendment directly disrupts President Donald Trump’s agenda for religion and politics. Trump states frequently that he is an advocate for religious freedoms, but when it comes to campaigning, Trump is willing to push the boundaries. In regards to the Johnson Amendment, at the National Prayer Breakfast in February of 2017, Trump stated his support in regards to repealing the Amendment. He believes that it constrains the freedom of speech for those churches who wish to endorse their desired political candidate. However, if the amendment was appealed, churches would become more political and elections, more religious: which is against the American notion of separation of state and church.
Although Trump claims to be a supporter of freedom of religion, it can be speculated that his administration is pushing for the practice of a nationwide religion. This is supported by his “Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiate,” which is to ensure that faith-based communities that “form the bed rock of our society” have strong advocates in the White House and Federal Government. He has also been known to publically support and stand by those who advocate for the “pro-life” initiative. These two examples do not show that President Trump is mandating the practicing of a religion for the United States, but in regards to the Jeffersonian view of freedom of religion, one may say that Trump has failed to separate the church from the state during his presidency. The two may only have varied views of religion, but when it comes to their views on education, the contrast is far more evident.
Jefferson, being an intelligent man, had a great devotion to the importance of education. He was the first to introduce the idea of a public schooling system to the United States. Alongside his drafting for the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Jefferson was also writing a piece of legislation known as A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” This bill proposed a districting of counties to be created every five or six miles. In each district there would be a school for reading, writing, and arithmetic. The bill also proposed an education system that would be publically funded.[footnoteRef:6] This bill was not passed, but Thomas Jefferson’s push for education did not stop. On January 5, 1801, He wrote to a colleague stating his frustrations with the slow moving legislation towards implementing education for children. Jefferson claimed that no one desired more sincerely for education in the states to be properly formed than himself. In current times, it is safe to say that Jefferson’s desires for a free public education system was answered. This system is deemed very important in modern day America, but what does the current President have to say about the importance of public education?
President Donald Trump in the first 100 days of his presidency made executive decisions regarding education that contrast Jefferson’s ideals. First, his administration decided to take strides towards cutting the Education Department funding.[footnoteRef:8] He wanted to use some of this funding for the “school choice” movement, where families would have different programs that offer other options opposed to the public schooling set by their district. He originally proposed that the funding be cut by 9.2 billion dollars (Hansen, 2017). 8 President Trump has also proposed an elimination of the Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness program. This would cost students more, but would save the federal government a lot of money. This elimination speaks in favor of current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and Trump’s desire to move more of education out of the hands of the federal government and into the hands of the states. With the appointment of Besty DeVos, Trump’s administration stirred quite the commotion in the education field. Betsy decided to use homeschooling and private education over the public school system. The National Education Association President, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, “even went as far as to say that DeVos’ ‘efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers–which take away funding and local control from our public schools–to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense.’’ (Maiers, 2016). With a DeVos as the Secretary of Education, and billion dollar education cuts, it’s safe to wonder if Donald Trump truly supports the Public Schooling system.
Thomas Jefferson dedicated much of his political career to the fighting for the United States to be a county with religious freedom and a strong public education system. He wrote bills and fought legislation for years but never truly got to see the fruits of his labors. His determination helped shape the country of the United States that we know today. However, the current presidency is now tending to lean away from the educational and religious rights established in the early 19th century. Donald Trump has tried to remove Amendments that help ensure a separation of state and church and has taken money away from the Department of Education. Although the freedom of religion and the right to education is still part of the American standard, Trump goes to show that not all presidents have the same ideals as our founding fathers, and if Jefferson was alive today, it’s safe to assume that he may not be a Trump supporter.
- Boyd, Julian P. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. V. 1. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton and Oxford University Press, 1950
- Gaustad, Edwin S. “Thomas Jefferson, Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court.” Church History 67, no. 4. December 1998 http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=50929575-a2fc-47b6-8bca-db0b28a0e5bc%40sessionmgr4007&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWNvb2tpZSxpcCx1aWQmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZlJnNjb3BlPXNpdGU%3d#AN=1426546&db=a9h
- Gjelten, Tom “Another Effort To Get Rid Of The ‘Johnson Amendment’ Fails.” NPR. Accessed October 15, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2018/03/22/596158332/another-effort-to-get-rid-of-the-johnson-amendment-fails
- Hansen, Michael. “Reflecting on education policy during Trump’s first 100 days- and predicting what’s next.” Brookings. Accessed October 15, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/05/02/reflecting-on-education-policy-during-trumps-first-100-days-and-predicting-whats-next/
- Jefferson, Thomas. “A bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 18 June 1779” National Archives: Founders Online. Accessed October 13, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-02-02-0132-0004-0082
- Maiers, Stacy. “NEA President reacts to Betsy DeVos nomination for Education Secretary” National Education Association. Accessed October 15, 2019. http://www.nea.org/home/69329.htm
- Oberg, Barbara B. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. V. 32. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton and Oxford Princeton University Press, 2005.
- Smith, George. “Thomas Jefferson on Public Education, Part 1.” Libertarianism. Accessed October 15, 2019. https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/excursions/thomas-jefferson-public-education-part-1
- White House. “President Donald J Trump Stands up for Religious Freedom in the United States Justice Fact Sheets. Accessed October 15, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-stands-religious-freedom-united-states/