Saturday, November 13, 2010

Biased Opinion - Thomas Jefferson, Still Not On the Side of Religion in Government

Thomas Jefferson
After I pointed out that Jefferson didn't have much use for religion, and was probably as close to an atheist as a public figure could in in the 18th century and still be a public figure, I got an angry response accusing me of slicing quotes and not taking into account Jefferson's inaugural address, which they claimed showed that Jefferson clearly intended for the U.S. to be built upon a religious foundation. They then pointed to a quote of their own from Jefferson's inaugural address that they asserted supported thus idea. The quote in question is this:

"I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations."

This sounds pretty good for the pro-religious people. Until you actually read through the quote carefully. And until you read through the entire inaugural address. And then, as usual, the "the United States was based on a religious foundation" claims fall apart entirely.

First off, let's remember that Jefferson was giving a public speech as a public figure in a time in which a certain appeal to religion was expected. Leaving out a reference to God would probably have ended Jefferson's public career as a politician, and you can bet he knew that. As a counterpoint, I'd note that Obama spent about as much time in his inaugural address making appeals to God as Jefferson did in his, and somehow I don't think that the "conservative" rabble that wants to jam religion into every aspect of government is exactly lining up to extol Obama's inaugural address as a high point in religious sentiment.

We can also take note of the fact that this was Jefferson's second inaugural address. But what did Jefferson say about religion in his first address? Well, he made a fairly oblique reference to the blessings of providence as part of an overall listing of the benefits enjoyed by the country resulting from geography and the good character of the citizenry:

"Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?"

Things look pretty good for the pro-religious foundation people now, don't they? They should bask in the glory right now, because it's going to be a short-lived moment for them. You see, in both of these quotes, Jefferson is not talking about the government, he's talking about the citizenry. So what happens when Jefferson talks about the government you ask? Well, in his first address you don't have to look far, because he tells you what he thinks the role of the government is in the two sentences immediately following the one I just quoted. He says:

"Still one thing more, fellow-citizens - a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities."

Notice that he says this is the sum total of good government. Not to involve itself into religion, or moral issues, or anything other than preventing people from hurting one another and leaving them otherwise free to do whatever they want. But things get worse for the religious foundation proponents, in Jefferson's second inaugural address. Remember that paragraph I quoted near the beginning of this post? Jefferson is calling for people to pray that the officers of the government will be wise in fulfilling their duties in office, a call for private prayers made by private citizens. But what does Jefferson say about the involvement of the government in the area of religion? Well, he toes the Constitutional line set forth in the First Amendment and which he defined as a "wall of separation between church and state" in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association:

"In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies."

In short, it seems that Jefferson was comfortable speaking about private religious observances when making a public speech in an era in which this sort of pronouncement was expected. However, when it came to mixing government and religion, Jefferson was cognizant of the fact that seems to elude many "religious conservatives" now - that the United States, from its inception, has held to a policy that divides government and religion. On this point, Jefferson was quite clear, and no amount of jumping up and down can change this.

The Founding Fathers steered quite clear of any implication that the two should be joined, probably because they understood, as the religious right seems not to, the danger to religion that mixing the two would pose. Think about it: From the perspective of the non-believer, putting religion into government merely involved injecting silly and meaningless superstition into the public sphere. But if you are a devout member of a particular faith, inserting religious teaching or practices into government could very well mean legally mandating that you participate in heretical practices. For a nonbeliever, it is an inconvenience. For the religiously observant, it is potentially an anathema. For this reason I am always befuddled when people with strong religious convictions agitate for religion in government. If you are religious, the last thing you should want is government involved in religion. Before you decide to put government into the business of religious ideas, you would do well to remember this quote, from our first President:

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action." - George Washington

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