The Tyranny of Forced Belief
A Brief Note on ‘Religion’
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The framers of the U.S. constitution—most of them—were not religious. Or, if they were, it was mostly for public appearance. They grasped the need for separation of church and state. They also knew that 18th century America was a nation of myriad religions. The nation had been founded, to be fair, by Puritan pilgrims fleeing English religious persecution.
Jefferson, like most men of his time, was a bag of political, cognitive and moral contradictions. He felt that slavery was immoral but didn’t want to free slaves for fear of mass revolt.(When writing the Declaration of Independence he added a couple sentences wherein the slaves would be freed but the other framers, when it came time for editing, struck this out.) He believed in sexual moderation but had several children with his own slave, Sally Hemings. A native Virginian like George Washington, Jefferson believed in states’ rights, he was a fierce supporter of freedom of speech, individual rights, freedom of religion, and most Enlightenment ideals.
Jefferson was our nation’s first Secretary of State, serving under Washington. Then he was vice president under John Adams, and finally Jefferson was our third President, presiding from 1801-1809. He was broadly considered the smartest, most intellectual of the founding fathers. He was a lawyer and politician and was very young during the American revolution (his early thirties). He was born in 1743 and died in 1826, at age 83, old for those days. He believed a serious person exercised both their brains and their body.
In 1784 Jefferson was sent to Paris as a minister for “Negotiating Treaties of Amity and Commerce” along with the much older Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Jefferson was still only 43. A young man. He was a consummate statesmen and thinker and he was, like Franklin, a sophisticated, ‘refined’ American; a European-American in the figurative sense. A ‘philosopher.’ He was in a sense the first true American president who happened to also be a dedicated—one might say literary—author.
Jefferson was in Paris when the French Revolution began; he even let some of the leaders of the resistance meet in his home there. He wrote everything from ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), to his Autobiography (1821) and much in between, including of course the Declaration of Independence.
Circling back to my initial thesis: The Framers (the Founding Fathers) deeply understood that in order for a pluralistic democratic nation to survive and flourish it needed to be as free and open as humanly possible. This meant freedom of speech. Religious tolerance. Tolerance of dissenting views. Freedom to criticize the government. Freedom of authorial expression.
The Framers were of course not impeccable, nor (metaphorically speaking) unimpeachable. They were flawed, complex men of their time. Ending slavery was on most of their minds, but in the 1770s and 1780s they grasped that if they tried to force this issue they’d lose the southern colonies. Were this to happen the fledgling nation would have crumpled before it even got started. In order to ‘save the Union’ they had to make certain sacrifices.
Was the continuation of slavery a moral stain? Yes. Absolutely. Could they have done otherwise? Probably not. Eventually this problem ruptured and was ‘solved’ (at least legally) in the American Civil War (1861-65). But in the 18th century we had not a coherent nation, nor states, nor a functioning democratic powerhouse. We had a disparate, loosely collected bundle of 13 colonies.
What struck me about some of the Framers’ thoughts was how similar I feel about our time here and now. Only the religion which is infesting the waters and trying to drown out reason and commonsense and science and debate is not Catholicism or Calvinism or Methodism or The Baptist Church but rather is what we all know to be the ‘new religion.’ Or rather the new fanaticism. The new figurative French Revolution. The new cultural British Monarchy oppressing us all. The new Antichrist, the anti-Superman, Nietzsche might say. One word. We all know it:
*(Photos from ‘Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens,’ the essay ‘The Private Jefferson.’)
**Two books worth reading which I loved, on this topic:
Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution (Gordon Wood)
The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden)
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Hmm. I wouldn't say that few of the Framers were religious. I think that they were almost all Freemasons and I think that most of them were Deists. Freemasonry and Deism (I am neither) each involved a rather deep spiritual perspective, don't you think?