The Talking Lion

Monday, July 04, 2005

From sea to shining sea...

So it's the Fourth of July, and if you are a true blue American, you would be eating hot dogs and watching fireworks somewhere, preferably with loved ones. Circumstances prevent me from engaging in such patriotic activities this evening, so instead I will share something that has been on my mind throughout the day.

We wouldn't have Independence Day without the Declaration of Independence and we wouldn't have the D of I as we know it without Thomas Jefferson. TJ was pretty proud of the fact that he penned one of the most important documents of our nation's history (probably second only to the Constitution). So proud, in fact, that he insisted that when he died it be included in his epitaph, along with two other accomplishments he deemed worthy to include on his gravestone. One of those was founding the University of Virginia, on the grounds of which I am writing this entry. The other is the "Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom."

Now, Thomas Jefferson was a very accomplished man. He served two terms as the third president of the United States. He negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which makes up something like half of the land that makes up the continental United States, and sent out Lewis and Clark to explore it. He was also Secretary of State under George Washington and Vice President under John Adams. None of these things are mentioned on his gravestone, however. This leads me to believe that Thomas Jefferson thought the University of Virginia was a pretty awesome thing to be a founder of. And I think that one is a no-brainer. Wahoowa. But as far as the Statute of Religious Freedom goes, its importance to TJ initially struck me as surprising. I mean, if I were president of the United States for two terms, I'm pretty sure I would want to make sure people passing my grave remembered the fact that I spent eight years as executive of their country.

Jefferson, however, would rather people know that he was all about religious freedom. And today, 229 years after our country was officially founded, religious freedom and the seperation of church and state is more important than ever. It turns out TJ had some pretty interesting things to say about the subject that are more appropriate in today's political environment than ever, when Americans can be asked to leave a church simply because they supported one political party over the other. You can read the entire statute here, but here is a sample of Jefferson's feelings on the subject:

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right

What is Jefferson talking about here? Well, it seems like he's basically saying that accusing someone as being unfit for office because they are not Christian enough is a violation of the candidates civil rights. So, according to the author of our declaration of independence, the campaign strategy of Karl Rove and co. deprived John Kerry "of those privaleges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right."

But this is not just about the 2004 election. This is about the bumper sticker I saw on a car on Rote 29 this afternoon that said "Vote Christian." This is about making religion a political issue. This is about the quiet dismantling of the wall that seperates church and state that has been going on for the past two decades.

The Washington Post ran a piece on the increasing presence of religion in politics in the Outlook section of this Sunday's issue which you can read here. It talks about another time of evangelical Christian fervor in this country, the 1820's, and the attempt of some clergy to make religion a political issue:

On July 4, 1827, a leading clergyman of the day, the Presbyterian minister Ezra Stiles Ely, preached a controversial sermon in Philadelphia that was published around the country. Its title could not have been clearer: "The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers." Calling for the formation of a Christian party in politics, Ely, a supporter of Andrew Jackson's in the 1828 presidential race, said: "Every ruler should be an avowed and sincere friend of Christianity. He should know and believe the doctrines of our holy religion, and act in conformity to its precepts."

Reading the sermon, Jackson sensed danger in Ely's words. There was a time for politics and a time for religion -- but both at once, inextricably entwined, meant trouble. Like the early years of the 21st century, the 1820s was an age of great evangelical fervor, but Jackson had no interest in fueling the fire Ely wanted to ignite. "All true Christians love each other, and while here below ought to harmonize; for all must unite in the realms above," Jackson later wrote Ely. Having given faith its due, he also reminded Ely of the centrality of individual freedom in religious matters. "Amongst the greatest blessings secured to us under our Constitution," Jackson told Ely, "is the liberty of worshipping God as our conscience

Now, 178 July Fourths later, the commingling of religion and politics in America would seem a prime exhibit of the Old Testament's adage that "there is no thing new under the sun." Though we have been here before, there is something different and disturbing about the skirmishes of our own time. Always important, the religious factor in politics has become pervasive, converting public life into a battle of uncompromising extremes. Whether the subject is terrorism, Iraq, abortion, gay marriage, the judiciary or stem-cell research, virtually every issue is being viewed through the prism of faith. Our public background music has moved from "Stars and Stripes Forever" to "Onward, Christian Soldiers" -- and we have too many Elys and not enough Jacksons.

Not enough Jacksons indeed. The political atmosphere that is being created by the right, bringing in religion into almost every issue, is not being true to the spirit of our Constitution and the values on which this country was founded. The Founding Fathers recognized the danger of injecting religion into politics. That's why they advocated for the seperation of church and state. It's just a shame that Jefferson isn't around today to call out Bush for his actions. I'd like to see the Right Wing punditry try and label Thomas Jefferson as "just another liberal whacko."

With conservatives calling the court system the last bastion of liberalism in our federal government and a new justice set to take over Sandra Day's seat sometime in the coming months, there is no doubt that religion will be injected into the politics of the selection process. With the Virginia General Assembly, State Senate, and Governor elections set for this coming November, voters will likely continue to "Vote Christian." But for one day, the day of our nation's birth, think about the words of one of our founding fathers and consider the importance of maintaining a true seperation of church and state. Do it for Thomas Jefferson. Do it for America.


  • Oh, sorry about that bumper sticker. I forgot to add a comma. I was trying to implore my friend Chris to vote.

    He didnt. That bitch.

    By Blogger Arun, at Tuesday, 05 July, 2005  

  • Wow. What an awesome post. Very well written. You make your point very well, and your analysis of what was important to Jefferson is something I never thought of before, and Ive done some reading ona Jefferson.

    Excellent job!

    By Blogger Aaron Kinney, at Tuesday, 05 July, 2005  

  • Definitely an excellent post, but I'm left with the following nagging question: isn't it very rare that religion is not overtly political?

    By Blogger Patrick, at Tuesday, 05 July, 2005  

  • Tangentially, in a way we have way too many Jacksons nowadays, only they have reconciled with Ely and now speak with one voice. I allude to the fact that Jackson was the first President to really push the limits of executive power, which of course is the modus operandi of the crypto-fascists running this country.

    By Blogger Patrick, at Tuesday, 05 July, 2005  

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