23 March 2007
Defending Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson would sue for slander if he knew of what folks were accusing him. It is true that Old Thomas did not like government declared days of fasting or thanksgiving. You have to admit that he was only a Deist and not an Evangelical Christian. And there was that embarrassing letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. No matter. If Thomas could defend himself today, he would vehemently deny that he wanted to protect government from religion. That famous "Wall of Separation" between Church and State was intended to protect religion from the government. We cannot blame Thomas Jefferson for what is happening today.

Thomas Jefferson did not want government interfering in religion at all for fear that government would pick a religion, thereby limiting the freedom of all religions not chosen. This was what Europeans had fled in coming to America. The Danbury Baptists were particularly concerned; Baptists, or Anabaptists as they were known on the European Continent were not popular with Old World Governments and were seen as subversive dissidents. Jefferson assured them that the new United States of America would not interfere in any way with the right of any citizen to practice any religion of his choice, even those considered subversive. This stance was not because Jefferson disdained or suspected religion's role in society, but because he valued it so highly. Government was not to be protected from religion; religion must be protected from government in any free society.

How strange it is that we have erred so far from the foundational tenets of the Founding Fathers that we now espouse the opposite of democracy in the name of democracy. While Thomas Jefferson fought for the right to freely express religious belief unhampered by the government, our society fights to restrict religious expression in the name of "protecting democracy" from the religious right. How can restricting freedom of expression ever protect democracy?

The wave seemed to start with courthouse Nativity scenes and displays of the Ten Commandments. At first glance, the objection seems reasonable. If the government pays for the religious display, the government is establishing a religion. Of course, the obvious solution is to provide space for citizens to express religious sentiments, all citizens and all religions at their own expense. Except that since we are predominately a Christian society still, the number and type of religious displays probably would not change much. And of course, just as with prayer in schools, it does not seem to satisfy the nay-sayers that the religious expression be from the private sector and be voluntary. Religion cannot be publicly displayed at all; the public expression of religious sentiment or position is dangerous and subversive in and of itself and must be regulated, even forbidden. Old Thomas is turning flips in his grave.

The perversion of Jefferson's beliefs grows worse. Not only is religion increasingly forbidden the right of public expression, but religious people are frowned upon if they engage in the political process for the purpose of expressing or defending their religious beliefs. It has come to the point where an outspoken Evangelical Christian will have a difficult time being approved for a Cabinet position because of the widely held belief that your religious beliefs belong only in the church house, not in the public arena. You know old Thomas believed like Voltaire that "I disagree heartily with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That belief was foundational to the forming of the Bill of Rights. Where is it today?

Thomas Jefferson knew that at the heart of democracy is freedom of speech; the right to express loudly and publicly for what you stand. The American Civil Liberties Union says it was founded to protect that right, and has defended the American Nazi Party and the Klu Klux Klan. Why then does this organization oppose even student initiated prayer in schools? Why does a person of religion have to apologize for running for office? Of what are we afraid? I know what frightened Thomas Jefferson. The silence of censorship. He wanted to protect religious people from a government that would silence them.

So if we were going to quote Thomas Jefferson accurately, what would we be saying about the role of religion in our society and government's responsibility toward religion? Firstly, we would never tax religions. We would certainly never make decisions about taxing religions based upon what they teach. That is a terrible breach in the "Wall of Separation"; just the kind of breach our friend Thomas wished to prevent. It is a very slippery slope. Soon it will mean that no not-for-profit organization can have a different opinion from the current administration on any controversial subject. No matter what our religious or political affiliations, none of us want to go there.

President Jefferson would not want the government to have any input at all in what religious organizations say or how they are organized. Yes, this leaves some margin for terrorists and crazies, but the alternative is the death of democracy, in which case the terrorists and crazies are welcome to whatever is left. Perhaps Thomas understood this so clearly because freedom was so new in his day. Maybe we are so accustomed to these freedoms that we prefer security to freedom. They tell me the crime rate was low in Communist Russia.

Thomas would never advocate the limitation of religious expression. On the contrary, he would want open, free participation in the political process of all groups of people, whatever their beliefs. Thomas would not be so naïve as to think that anyone would act without a personal agenda while seeking public office. Mr. Jefferson recognized the free flow of ideas to be crucial to a democracy and he was not afraid of ideas opposed to his own. He wanted free flow of ideas so the voters could decide for themselves what America would be like.

If Thomas Jefferson could defend himself he would beg us to follow his example. Instead of fearing religious participation in the development of public policy, Thomas would have us embrace what religion has to offer society. Perhaps as our society has ceased to value the role of religion, we have ceased to value democracy as those who brought it to us defined it. That is what Thomas would tell us, if he could. Let us listen.

Written by Deborah Hooper

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posted by -atomik kitten @ 10:34 AM  
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