My Defense of Jefferson, 1985

Every now and then I run across something I wrote “back in the day” which causes me to wonder whether I or the world have changed all that much over the course of the last ten (or fifteen or twenty) years.

The following rhapsody to Thomas Jefferson, the Constitution (as I then understood it), and the separation of church and state was written more than 25 years ago, in 1985, back when I was a punk kid of twenty writing opinion columns for my college student paper, the Aquinas Times–and thinking, like most twenty-year-olds, that I had all the answers. This piece actually appeared in my hometown paper, The Grand Rapids Press, just a couple days after the Fourth of July, as part of a semi-regular feature called “Viewpoint in Religion.” The paper gave it an atrocious headline–“Don’t Blame the Constitution for the Rise of Secular Humanism,” which I hated then and still hate, because it was never my intent to pick a fight with “secular humanism” in the first place–though I myself had not yet become the infidel atheist I am today.

Re-reading the piece, what strikes me most is how little my own ideals have changed–and at the same time how naive I was about both their origins (I didn’t have nearly the grounding in history that I should have for some of these assertions) and their assumed universality. At twenty, I still believed that reasonable people could find common ground, even across deep ideological divides. I’m no longer so sanguine about that. If I were writing this today I would give far less credence to the posited “moral concerns” of religion and its advocates. Today I tend to see most of those claims as a cover for bigotry, pure and simple. But outside of wishing that I’d had a better grasp of history back then, and perhaps dared to be a little more confrontational with believers, there probably isn’t a lot here I would  change.

In re-typing the article, I added about three commas and corrected the spelling of Madalyn O’Hair’s name (I misspelled it in the original piece, and the editors at the Press failed to catch my mistake.)

I’ll also notice that, based just on my own characterization of the political right in this piece, conservatives seem to have been a lot more honest in the 1980s. Attacking Jefferson for not being a Christian is way more intellectually defensible than using pre-printed ships’ manifests from the 1800s to try to argue that no, really, T.J. was a true-blue born-again believer.

Lastly, I find it pleasing–and maybe even a little “fated”–that Thomas Paine seems to have been leaning over my left shoulder here, though in 1985, we were only passing acquaintances. The last couple of paragraphs catch some of the spirit of his “government is for the living” passages in Rights of Man–a book that I knew nothing of when I wrote this article. Of course the “constitution as living document” has been a pillar of liberal idealism for a long time–and Paine’s writings did much to foster that line of thinking.

Oh yeah–and my paragraphs were a lot shorter back then. Go figure.

thomas_jefferson_by_charles_willson_peale_1791

Anyway, here’s the article:

From: “Viewpoint in Religion,” The Grand Rapids Press, July 6, 1985

Jefferson, Secular Humanism, and the Separation of Church and State

by Christine Bichler

Poor old Thomas Jefferson. Who’d have thought he’d fall on such hard times?

Believe it or not, the man who gave us the Declaration of Independence is now being blamed for something he probably never heard of. The tide of “secular humanism” allegedly sweeping the nation is said by some to be Jefferson’s doing, mostly because of his radical idea of separating church and state.

If you think I’m joking, I assure you that on more than one recent occasion I’ve heard Jefferson’s ideas denounced because “he wasn’t a Christian.” The notion that Jefferson was a kind of eighteenth-century Madalyn Murray O’Hair is beginning to look suspiciously like a trend.

I suspect that most of those voicing such sentiments are well-meaning folks rightly dismayed by our country’s loss of moral sensitivity. They seem to be convinced, however, that the problem is entirely the fault of subversive secular humanists and a court system that is beginning to take the First Amendment just a bit too far.

Small wonder that Thomas Jefferson should come in for such abuse. On my part I must admit a certain bias. Being something of a free-thinker, I’ve always been partial to Jefferson and his ideas. But be that as it may, I am convinced that the man knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the “wall of separation between church and state.”

Further, while I believe that the United States has overdosed on secularism of late, I also believe that separation of church and state, correctly understood, does not hinder religion, but enhances it.

There is no doubt that the Christian religion has been intricately linked with the American government for much of our history. There is also no doubt that we have a tendency to glamorize that history. We envision our national past as some sort of Christian never-never land filled with heroic figures of superhuman virtue.

The truth is less flattering: as often as not, the entanglement of government and religion has had tragic consequences.

Religion has been and is used to fuel age-old hatreds, to justify wars, and to preserve social structures just and unjust. In Thomas Jefferson’s day, many Christians chose to ignore such injustices as slavery, legalized wife and child abuse, and the denial of voting rights to all but white male landholders.

Jefferson himself, progressive in most areas, was a slaveowner, as were many prominent Americans.

In time, however, such injustices were recognized as violations of the Constitution. For culture is a living organism that changes with time.

Today, in a country where minority religions are no longer uncommon, we must rethink our definitions of “establishment” and “freedom of religion.” We must avoid the delusion that we can go back to the good old days of Bible-thumping virtue, because that mythologized past does not exist.

There is legitimacy in the complaint that the United States is becoming devoid of spirituality. We, as a nation, have an unhealthy obsession with sex, violence, and material wealth.

Often those who claim to champion religion are the worst offenders, encouraging us to be selfish and self-righteous, as individuals and as a nation. We have come to take our fellow human beings and the earth we share with them for granted, and now we find ourselves capable of obliterating life on earth with our vast nuclear arsenal.

These problems are the symptoms of our spiritual malaise, but surely the blame for them is not to be laid at the doorstep of Thomas Jefferson, who may not have believed in the divinity of Christ but who certainly believed in his moral teachings.

The culprit is not Jefferson or the courts or the First Amendment or “secular humanism.” The culprit is us, our greed, our insensitivity.

Forcing children to read Bibles and recite prayers is not going to provide us with the answers to our problems. However, if people of all religions would come together, we would realize that there is far more that binds people of diverse faiths together than there is that separates them. Thomas Jefferson, whatever his faults, realized that there could be no such communion of all humanity in an environment in which one religion subjugates all others.

Jefferson and the other founders of the United States did not leave us an already perfect society. They left us a dream of justice, freedom, and equality for peaceful people of all kinds. This dream is embodied in a Constitution that, like all great documents, invites and even requires debate, question, and reinterpretation in every generation without ever losing its original spirit. The founders wrote it well, for they knew it would have to last beyond their time.

We are still in the process of reaching our founders’ dream, but we will never attain it if we attempt to march backward through history or freeze ourselves in time.

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