Saturday, April 14, 2007

Come Back, Tom Jefferson, We Really Need You

You know who we ought to listen to more? Thomas Jefferson. Oh, sure, he's sometimes called the "author of our democracy" because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and his face is on the nickel and on the two dollar bill that no one uses, and he has that beautiful memorial by the tidal basin in Washington that no one visits because they're all jammed into the Lincoln Memorial. But let's face it: no one's really listening to ol' Tom Jefferson much anymore. If they were, they would have to face up to the fact that Jefferson is likely spinning in his grave over the mess that Americans in general, and the Bush Republicans in particular, have made of his vision.

Take, for example, those ninnies - who listen to bigger ninnies like Bill O'Reilly - who claim to be "patriotic," yet also insist that separation of church and state is a "liberal myth," and that the United States was founded on "Christian principles." Jefferson was neutral about religion, although he considered himself a Deist rather than a Christian, and was often critical of Christianity as practiced by those claiming to be Christians. He was especially disdainful of the clergy, however, writing first in 1800, "The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man," again in 1813, "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," and again in 1814, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty; he is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."

Those who claim that the Founding Fathers did not intend for there to be separation of church and state should turn to Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, in which he stated, "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." And those - among them modern clergy like Rabbi Gellman - who defend displaying the Ten Commandments on government property because, in their delusion, "all secular law comes from the Bible," need to be reminded of what Jefferson wrote in 1824: "The common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced or knew that such a character existed."

Even that dramatic, thundering quote etched into the marble within the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial itself is abbreviated and taken out of context: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Sounds like a nice, idealistic slap against tyranny, with a gratuitous nod to the Almighty, doesn't it? Consider, then, the entire quotation, taken from Jefferson's 1800 letter to Benjamin Rush: "The clergy...believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." Note the lower-case "g" in "god;" this is exactly how Jefferson wrote it, believing as he did that mindless tokens of worship did not exalt God (or "god"), but diminished mankind.

It is fitting that we close with Jefferson's crowning achievement, the Declaration of Independence, and what a magnificent document it is too. Despite the popular misconception that the Declaration specifically mentions "God-given rights," it does not: it first refers to "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," sounding distinctly more Wiccan than Christian, and then to "unalienable rights" with which men have been endowed by their "Creator." Here, too, the mis-named "fundamentalists" assume too much when they point to the capitalized "C" in "creator" as proof of Jefferson's Christian sympathies; read the whole document, and you will find nearly every proper noun capitalized, as was the custom in official documents in Jefferson's day. And, other than a final brief mention of "Divine Providence," there are no other references to God or Christianity in the Declaration.

What the Declaration does say, quite clearly, is, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." It then states "that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." One can only wonder what Jefferson would think of a president and vice-president who continue to drag the nation through a costly and pointless war that the vast majority of Americans do not support; of a president who vetoes legislation, such as that for funding of stem-cell research, that both the Congress and people desperately want; and of a president who embraces religious extremism over the Constitutional rule of law that he has sworn to uphold. Would Jefferson not say that it was the right and duty of the people to remove a chief executive whose rule has become so destructive and so counter to the will of the governed?

Can you spell "Impeachment" - with a capital "I?"


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