What Would Jefferson Do?

Controversies ranging from New York City to Tangipahoa Parish highlight ongoing questions of church and state.


Freedom of religion was central to the Jeffersonian vision in the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson's personal faith, on paper, was straightforward -- though not as simple as it might seem. In 1816, after leaving the White House, he wrote to a friend from his home in Monticello: "Fear God and love thy neighbor is the sum of all religion."

Would that it were so. The issues of Jefferson's day were rooted in a national idea, defining democracy as a form of freedom. The Founding Fathers knew what they did not want America to be: a monarchy in which religion and the crown were entwined as a common power. Today we peer back with fascination over the founding of America and the contradictions -- such as the tolerance of slavery -- that still mark the country today.

Since the 9/11 terrorist assaults, the United States has entered a war that is all about religion -- a strain of Islamic nihilism. Behind the geopolitical story of "militant Islam" lies a domestic fabric deeply torn by disputes of faith and individual freedom. School prayer, abortion, gay rights and other issues stem from unending tensions between religion and the law. Many of these disputes revolve around the place of Jesus in the public square. What would Jefferson think of them?

In early December, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights announced the filing of a suit against that city's schools chancellor and another official for refusing to allow the display of a Christmas Nativity scene in tandem with a Jewish menorah and Islamic star and crescent. "Catholics are sick and tired of being discriminated against by bureaucrats who tell us we should be satisfied with a Christmas tree in the schools," a League press release asserted.

Another dispute arose in mid-October when the New Orleans branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Tangipahoa Parish public school system on behalf of two unnamed students, accusing school officials of violating the students' First Amendment freedom by allowing prayers before school assemblies and athletic games -- that is, the imposition of religion by government.

Nondenominational prayer at civic and school gatherings is a rooted tradition in communities across the country. It is also a Christian tradition, regardless of how the Almighty is addressed. In tiny Loranger, the town in Tangipahoa at the center of the lawsuit, the grounds of the Methodist Church abut the playground of the public elementary and middle school. The Methodist church provides tutoring services for students in public school, though not on religion, according to a pastor. The Baptist church is the other anchor of the town.

The ACLU's legal action is designed, it would seem, to uphold the constitutional wall between church and state. And yet the lawsuit is also meant to chip away at the role that faith plays in a community. Should Muslims, Jews or atheists be forced to pray in a public school? Obviously not. But an oppressive environment that expects youngsters to buckle under to Christian prayer is not the same as a community where prayer is a natural impulse of expression by students before football games or assemblies.

How far should the courts go in restricting expressions of prayer if they are directed not to Jesus, but to God? The ACLU argues that parents and students should not fear religious coercion. Fair enough. But if ever a situation cried out for some kind of community discussion with a capable facilitator to ameliorate the issues short of the courtroom, Loranger with its praying kids should qualify.

The many legal battles over how much of God is allowable in civic life are also a story of the Son of God in the national imagination. In his intelligent and highly readable new book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar Straus & Giroux), Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero writes of how Americans have interpreted Jesus in different historical periods.

In the colonial era, an Old Testament notion of God the Father was a common denominator in puritanical concepts of faith. As various Christian denominations spread, preachers shifted the focus to Jesus the Son, envisioning a figure to walk with those of the young nation through pioneer tribulations. "The United States would not have been Christianized as rapidly or broadly as it was if its people hadn't Americanized the Christian tradition as aggressively as Paul and his successors once Hellenized it," writes Prothero.

More than any minister, it was Thomas Jefferson -- a politician -- who exerted lasting impact on the religious imagination of America. In February 1804, President Jefferson sat in his office in the White House with a straight razor and two copies of the King James Bible. "He had plenty of things to do other than read scripture," Prothero reports. "He had just doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, and England was at war with France." But the brilliant Jefferson, who believed in spiritual accuracy, sliced away at holy writ, discarding everything written by Saint Paul (who never met Jesus during his corporeal life) and then some.

"The detritus literally fell to the White House floor," continues Prothero. "He excised all miracles and eliminated all legends surrounding Jesus' virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. ... [O]nly about one in ten Gospel verses survived Jefferson's razor."

The minimalist scripture that Jefferson pasted together, later published as The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, consists solely (and selectively) of Jesus' words. By Jefferson's lights, the heart of Jesus registered in the Sermon of the Mount -- the Beatitudes, including "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth" -- a sublime vision of human morality.

"To Jefferson, Jesus was a man rather than a god, and he was a man after Jefferson's own heart," writes Prothero. "And so his Jesus was first and foremost an ethical guide. He was not sent by God to die on a cross and atone for humanity's sins. He came not to save, but to teach. Or, he came to save by teaching. Jefferson's Jesus, in short, was an enlightened sage" -- like Jefferson himself.

Jefferson's little book had nowhere near the impact on American life as the Jeffersonian legacy of a nation committed to human equality. Jefferson owned slaves, sired a child by his slave Sally Hemings, and despite his lofty statements on freedom in seminal documents of the nation, neither freed his slaves (as George Washington stipulated in his will) nor acknowledged his own paternity of the child by Hemings. He was, in that sense (and perhaps that sense only), like Strom Thurmond, whose daughter by a teenage black servant spent most of her life protecting the powerful senator's secret, we now know.

Jefferson's sense of religious rights were as paradoxical as his sensibility about race. In his exercise of scriptural selectivity, Jefferson chose the moral values of Jesus that conformed to his own identity as an Enlightenment intellectual. Such a man would likely sympathize with the ACLU's legal argument in the Tangipahoa case. And yet, if Jefferson could be drawn into the situation in Loranger, he would surely be vexed by the situation. For much as he would sympathize intellectually with the two unnamed students in whose behalf the ACLU has sued, Jefferson the politician would be exquisitely sensitive to what a bitter legal battle would do to a tightly knit community where the two churches seem to function in harmony with the public schools by tutoring troubled students.

Jefferson would very likely be troubled by the war on terrorism for the same reasons. Though President George Bush has avoided specific mention of Jesus, his many references to an America that would liberate Iraq from evil echoes the Christian right's idea of Jesus entwined with American destiny.

"It has always been God's plan to have a nation where the glory of God could be sown and nurtured, from which His glory could spread throughout the whole world," televangelist Kenneth Copeland has proclaimed. "This North American continent is the place He chose for the seed to be planted."

Copeland's hubris is more unvarnished than Bush's rhetoric of "evil-doers." But Bush's speeches casting America in quasi-religious terms would aggravate Jefferson. Jefferson would easily support the invasion of Afghanistan because of 9/11 -- for a former president, that would be a straightforward military decision. But wrapping war in religious language would offend Jefferson, the Enlightenment rationalist.

For some fundamentalists, the war against terror has become a counter-strike for Christianity. The Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and religious heir, has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." Graham has entreated evangelicals to proselytize in the Middle East: convert the Arabs. A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention has called Muhammad, the founder of Islam, "a demon-possessed pedophile."

That sort of language would drive Jefferson bonkers. He would gravitate toward the position of the Dalai Lama, who considered Jesus "a greater master" and wrote a 1996 book, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus. For the Dalai Lama, long in exile because of Chinese suppression of Tibet, the Sermon on the Mount has a parallel with Buddhist thought and "the tendencies of each founder to teach through stories and parables," writes Stephen Prothero, who also points out that Jesus and the Buddha both preached "simplicity and modesty."

The paradox between Jefferson's private and public positions on these matters have carried down the years in the struggle for a national identity. The religious complexities of the country now march hand in hand with ones of ethnicity. As the courts hear a continuing succession of disputes over the place of religious statements in the public arena, the idea of a God-entwined national identity is a legal benchmark whose definition may never come.


Add a comment