Happy Independence Day
July 4th, 2010
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; self-evident, that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & they are endowed by their creator with certain iunalienable rights, that among which them are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
— Thomas Jefferson’s working draft of the Declaration of Independence
The tension between freedom and governmental imposition of specific religious beliefs and practices were evident at the very founding of our nation. That tension continues to this day as some attempt to re-write and whitewash history in order to promote the myth that our country was founded as an explicitly “Christian nation.” Those attempts are most outrageously exemplified by the Texas Board of Education’s decision to remove the very author of our Declaration of Independence from the state’s curriculum.
Thomas Jefferson poses a significant problem for the “Christian Nation” christianists. He himself held what they clearly would say are rather unorthodox religious beliefs, describing himself as being the sole member of a sect including no one but himself. He edited his own Bible (known today as The Jefferson Bible) by taking the pages of a standard Bible and rearranged selected verses in chronological order while omitting references to angels, miracles, the Trinity and the divinity and resurrection of Jesus.
In 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Jefferson complaining that the state of Connecticut did not recognize their religious liberties as an “unalienable right” but rather as a privilege granted by the state legislature. Jefferson responded with his now-famous “Wall of Separation” letter:
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.
(signed) Thomas Jefferson
Who would have thought that in 2010, that fight would now expand to ensuring Thomas Jefferson’s own place in the history of our independence?
The fight to “restore to man all his natural rights” continues. Happy Independence Day.