April 10, 2016

Jefferson's View of Church and State

English: A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson as Sec...
A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
History rarely provides us with a clean and purely objective accounting of events and personalities. Instead, we are left with various narratives, many of which are so divergent that they raise questions about whether we could possibly be referring to the same people or events that are the subject of a competing narrative.

In the United States, the manner in which we approach to our "founding fathers" provides a common example of competing narratives. We sometimes put them on pedestals and glorify them in ways that were probably not deserved, exaggerating their contributions while simultaneously whitewashing their history to strip away their faults. At other times, we demonize them by focusing so much on their flaws that we invalidate many of their accomplishments and contributions. Neither approach is likely reality-based. The truth may be somewhere in between or something else entirely.

From the perspective of many atheists, secularists, humanists, and freethinkers living in the U.S. today, it is difficult to understate the importance of Thomas Jefferson. We tend to see him as one of our own, and we often regard him as one of the earliest and most influential champions of the separation of church and state. It is difficult to find an atheist blogger in the U.S. who has not quoted Jefferson at one time or another, especially when faced with Christians pushing revisionist history and making the absurd claim that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote,
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
This has always been one of my favorite Jefferson quotes. He was determined to keep religion out of both government and public education. Why? He recognized that this was the only way to protect religious minorities, including those with no religion at all, from the majority religion and those seeking to impose it on others.

There are many Christians in the U.S. today who would very much like us to forget this line of thought; however, it is one that has served our country extremely well over the years despite our many efforts to undermine it. The Jeffersonian wall of separation of church and state has been weakened, but it is worth preserving if not strengthening.
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