Saturday, December 17, 2011

Of Courthouse Lawns, Religion, and Christian Nations--Our American Tradition

Thomas Jefferson's gravestone at
Monticello commemorating his
authorship of the Virginia Statute
for Religious Freedom
  For the last two entries we were looking at Founding Fathers and the idea that they established the United States as a "Judeo Christian Nation"--an idea that Barbara Curtis of Mommy Life Blog maintained as indisputable corresponding with a reader of this blog in regard to the Leesburg Courthouse debacle. Ms. Curtis, though a journalist of some reknown, like many who publish does not always do her research so I thought that I might do some research on the topic to clarify it. Two days ago we look at the colonial roots of the United States which could give some arguement in favor of the Christian Nation theory. Yesterday we began looking at the Founding Fathers themselves and what we can learn about their political philosophy. I started with Thomas Jefferson but he needs more than one entry so we will continue today with Jefferson and his approach to religion and public policy.

      Thomas Jefferson counted his three greatest accomplishments as authoring the Declaration of Independence, authoring the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and founding the University of Virginia. It was for these three things alone, and not even for his Presidency, his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, or his significant contributions to the natural sciences and the consequent advances on the agricultural and economic development of Virginia that he chose to be remembered. Let’s look at that Virginia Statute to see if it gives us any clues as to Jefferson’s views on the new Republic being a “Christian Nation.” 
An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,
That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;
That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;
That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any 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 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,
That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;
That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;
That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;
That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;
And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right   
     I am sorry Ms. Curtis, but that, to me, does not sound like someone who thought his efforts on behalf of good government was establishing a “Judeo-Christian nation.”  In fact, it sounds like he is insisting on a level playing field for people of all and diverse religious opinions.  Not all the founding fathers may have agreed with him, of course, but Jefferson is the single most important actor in the shaping of the new nation and he was not trying to set up a Christian republic.   

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