Fighting Words for a Secular America
November 24, 2004 7:57 AM   Subscribe

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God... 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... History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government." These heretical words, spoken by a government official now, would surely result in him being targeted for removal by the GOP in the next red-state "mandate." But they were written by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the increasingly pious, "faith-based" United States of America. A timely reminder from Robin Morgan in Ms. Magazine [via the sublime wood s lot.]
posted by digaman (48 comments total)
Hear Him... Hear Him.
posted by mmahaffie at 8:03 AM on November 24, 2004

Why does Thomas Jefferson hate our freedom?
posted by RylandDotNet at 8:08 AM on November 24, 2004

Its a dark day for America when pagan terrorists like Jefferson adorn our currency.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:12 AM on November 24, 2004

This textbook contains material on gravity. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a force that cannot be directly seen. This material must be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

From Disclaimer Stickers For Science Textbooks.
posted by y2karl at 8:20 AM on November 24, 2004

This link has even more on the topic.
posted by pabanks46 at 8:21 AM on November 24, 2004

Nice link Digaman. Jefferson said a lot about Christianity and his peers' attempt to force it into government and law. I've always been partial to "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
posted by HifiToaster at 8:26 AM on November 24, 2004

When I posted above, I forgot to include this link. It is, unlike this, a look at a more recent, but still ancient by our standards, set of Americans: the late 19th century USSC. While the link is to a discussion about how people have misused the case, a fair reading of the case, which we just had to do in class, might not be as clear cut. Very clearly, some of the highest ranking political appointees of the time had a very different take on the issue.
posted by pabanks46 at 8:37 AM on November 24, 2004

"(The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents," The Lowell Lecture, Harvard University, April 20, 1992
by Gore Vidal

The founders of the United States were not enthusiasts of the sky-god. Many, like Jefferson, rejected him altogether and placed man at the center of the world. The young Lincoln wrote a pamphlet against Christianity, which friends persuaded him to burn. Needless to say, word got around about both Jefferson and Lincoln and each had to cover his tracks. Jefferson said he was a deist, which could mean anything or nothing, while Lincoln, hand on heart and tongue in cheek, said he could not support for office anyone who "scoffed" at religion.
From the beginning, sky-godders have always exerted great pressure in our secular republic. Also, evangelical Christian groups have traditionally drawn strength from the suppressed. African slaves were allowed to organise heavenly sky-god churches, as a surrogate for earthly freedom. White churches were organised in order to make certain that the rights of property were respected and that the numerous religious taboos in the New and Old Testaments would be enforced, if necessary, by civil law. The ideal to which John Adams subscribed --that we should be a nation of laws, not of men-- was quickly subverted when the churches forced upon everyone, through supposedly neutral and just laws, their innumerable taboos on sex, alcohol, gambling. We are now indeed a nation of laws, mostly bad and certainly anti-human.
Roman Catholic migrations in the last century further re-enforced the Puritan sky-god. The Church has also put itself on a collision course with the Bill of Rights when it asserts as it always has, that "error has no rights." The last correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson expressed their alarm that the Jesuits were to be allowed into the United States.

Vidal on Jefferson and In God We Trust:

We had Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. These were extraordinarily wise men and understood the ways of the world, and they gave us a very good form of government. No, it was not a liberal government. It was a very reactionary one. But it was the 18th century --1787 was when the constitution was written. It was as advanced as the human race had ever got at that time in devising a republic. To have lost that and to have lost all memory of it --we've been having a big argument about we've got "In God we trust" on the money. Well this is over the dead bodies of Thomas Jefferson and the other founders, most of whom did not believe in God and wanted to keep Church and State separate. Every American seems to think, "In God we trust" was put on the money by George Washington. Well, it was put on there by Dwight Eisenhower in trying to get some southern votes, Baptist preachers.

Vidal also remembers a bit of lovely Jeffersonian snark:

If Adams was the loftiest of the scholars at the Continental Congress of 1775, Thomas Jefferson was the most intricate character, gifted as writer, architect, farmer—and, in a corrupt moment, he allowed his cook to give birth to that unique dessert later known as Baked Alaska. Like Adams, he had tried his hand at constitution making in the spring of 1776. He sent A Summary View of the Rights of British America to Patrick Henry, the orator and professional Virginia politician, but got no answer. Henry reputedly had a problem with laudanum, the drug of the day. Jefferson was not pleased with this rebuff: "Whether Mr. Henry disapproved the ground taken," he later wrote, "or was too lazy to read it (for he was the laziest man in reading I ever knew) I never learned but he communicated it to nobody."

posted by matteo at 8:47 AM on November 24, 2004

Wasn't Jefferson one of those "limited government" types?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:54 AM on November 24, 2004

The MS article is generally correct, but a little too quick to draft Adams into the Deist camp. Adams famously described himself as "a church-going animal" and seems to have been a fairly devout Christian, though one who believed in the separation of church and state.
posted by LarryC at 9:04 AM on November 24, 2004

"But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

The country in which this quote was said no longer exists. Your government routinely picks your pocket and is happy to give it to the state-approved religion of its choice, and your neighbor will cheerfully break your leg for not following his (or her) God.

Separation of church and state? It's the waist-high Hadrian's Wall of politics - it's a barrier only if manned. Once unmanned, it just becomes a neat feature on the political landscape, to be noted and addressed only while going over it. And our government is slowly unmanning it, while the barbarians mill on the other side, awaiting their chance.
posted by FormlessOne at 9:14 AM on November 24, 2004

Theocracy makes the Baby Jesus cry.
posted by Foosnark at 9:28 AM on November 24, 2004

I too like our founding daddies--they are a cute bunch. But though I find religious belief akin to continuing belief in The Tooth Fairy, I suggest that we note that things change: should we deny women the vote because the Founders did? And bring back slavery? etc etc
The "moral certitude" that so many Americans seem to have is alas, something used to knock others over the head than something affirmative to be applied to those downtrodden, in need, helpless etc

If as Marx said religion is the opiate of the people, then it has become an overdose and is killing our nation.
posted by Postroad at 9:37 AM on November 24, 2004

Et des boyaux du dernier pretre
Serrons le cou du dernier roi.
posted by Hildago at 9:50 AM on November 24, 2004

In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty

when i say things like this, my s american friends stare at me incredulously and ask if i've never heard of liberation theology.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:01 AM on November 24, 2004

the increasingly pious, "faith-based" United States of America

"The proportion of the [American] population that can be classified as Christian has declined from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001."

"American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

"The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- a Neopagan religion that is sometimes referred to as Witchcraft. Numbers of adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months."

ARIS and here

"14.1% do not follow any organized religion. This is an unusually rapid increase -- almost a doubling -- from only 8% in 1990. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans taken together."

Some of the figures are a few years old but what's clear is that, if religious elements are exerting an increasing influence in politics, they are doing so in spite of demographic trends, suggesting that (and I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but I happen to think it matters in terms of actually accomplishing anything) that the tactics of how religious fundamentalism in exercising influence in the United States is well worth studying. In the 2004 election, frankly, religious fundamentalists did a better job activating a shrinking majority than secularists and other non-traditional adherents did at activating a growing minority.

We liberals need to acknowledge that the idea that some sort of faith-based jihad has taken over this country is a potentially disasterous over-simplification of a complex political reality. The Republicans have been gaining ground with a multipronged program of which religion is merely a part. Look at these Exit Polls: according to them, Bush gained 5% with women, 2% with blacks, a whopping 9% with latinos, 3% with Asians, 3% with Protestants, 5% with Catholics, 6% with Jews, 1% with those who identified themeselves as having no religion - he lost ground only with the "Other" religion category, I would imagine Muslims had a little something to do with that one, among others. He gained 4% with people who say they never attend church but only 1% among those who say they attend church weekly. He lost only 2% among homosexuals and bisexuals, and can somebody please have a firm word with the 23% of that demographic who voted for Bush? He gained 3% with heterosexuals.

You can't discount the religious issue because it was significant. But consider: while moral values was cited as the most important issue at 22% of voters, the economy and jobs were almost equal at 20%, and the split there was almost equal and opposite there - 80 vs. 18% Bush vs. Kerry on the former, 18% vs 80% Kerry vs. Bush on the latter. The next biggest main issue by group? Terrorism at 19%. Bush slammed Kerry, winning 86 vs 14%. In all the other areas where Kerry won (education, Iraq, health care) he didn't win as big as Bush did on his issues - moral values, terrorism, and taxes. Just by way of perspective in this discussion.
posted by nanojath at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2004

But military states need fundamentalists.

They follow orders.
They seldom question the hierarchy (or anything else).
They are better at putting their lives on the line.
They will torture and kill evil-doers efficiently.
But best of all, they stay in line in the off-season, and are as nice as apple pie .

Atheists and agnostics make poor soldiers, question the hierarchy (and everything else), have wishy-washy ideas about good and evil, don't kill or die on cue, and worst of all, they are shit-disturbers in the off-season. Some don't even like apple pie.

Natural selection. Do the math.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:07 AM on November 24, 2004

This thread reminded me: In the 50s during the Red Scare, they did a famous study--they showed groups of Americans quotes from the Constitution and Declaration--without identifying them--and the vast majority of people said they sounded communist/socialist.
posted by amberglow at 10:10 AM on November 24, 2004

"a priest-ridden people" would never have approved of jefferson's relationship with sally hemmings.

but fortunately for tom the rest of that slavery business was pretty much in line with god's word.
posted by three blind mice at 10:23 AM on November 24, 2004

but fortunately for tom the rest of that slavery business was pretty much in line with god's word.

There may have been apologists for slavery, however, don't forget that most abolitionists were also motivated by religion. Most abolitionists were Christian, as were most of the British abolitionist movement, as well as many of the civil rights campaigners.

As for Thomas Jefferson, I think he was right about there being a need for separation between church and state. However, it's a good idea because it's a good idea, not because he said it. Jefferson had a vision of America very different from the egalitarian vision that liberal thought has today, and it would be wise to remember that when we try to put the man on a pedestal.
posted by unreason at 10:29 AM on November 24, 2004

Well, note that Jefferson died LONG before liberation theology really hit its stride, andrew cooke. He was a bright man and all, but precognition was not among his abilities.

amberglow, this lady claims to have done that "Declaration of Independence" experiment in 1950s Memphis.

On the other hand, another survey found that many Americans thought that the phrase "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" was a quotation from the US Constitution, rather than the Communist Manifesto.

So I'm not sure what any of that proves, except that people are generally ignorant, or that surveys are generally worthless.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:53 AM on November 24, 2004

Seeming somewhat relevant on the subject of American ignorance of what the Constitution says...
posted by nanojath at 10:59 AM on November 24, 2004

The U.S. Senate approved, on June 10, 1797, a treaty with Tripoli that included the following as Article XI:

"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,--as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen,--and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mohammedan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever interrupt the harmony existing between the two countries."

posted by WestCoaster at 11:39 AM on November 24, 2004

Jefferson is good on the topic of religion in early America, but Thomas Paine was the master. From the Age of Reason:
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.
I'd quote the whole thing if I could...
posted by SweetJesus at 11:45 AM on November 24, 2004

FormlessOne: Jefferson's Virginia had an official state religion until 1786, and other states had official churches for decades thereafter. The idea that there was some venerable wall of separation that has since gradually eroded is just silly. It wasn't until 1947 that there was any recognition of a right against state-support religion, and that decision was based on anti-Catholic bigotry.

The sky is not falling because the government is allowed to give some money to orphanages or (indirectly) to schools that teach religion.
posted by esquire at 12:42 PM on November 24, 2004

esquire, how about when the government gives mass-marrying cults public funds under the "Healthy Marriage Initiative"?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:51 PM on November 24, 2004

The sky is not falling because the government is allowed to give some money... (indirectly) to schools that teach religion.

I'd call it a warning sign.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:51 PM on November 24, 2004

the government is not doing it indirectly at all--many Federal agencies and departments have established over 150 faith-based funding programs specifically to give our tax money to religious orgs and groups.
posted by amberglow at 2:03 PM on November 24, 2004

See, here's the thing: in the abstract, I would actually trust my denomination (Episcopal Church USA) with, say, a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" education program. But the Unification Church? Not so much.

And then, there are people who think that my denomination (the church of almost all of the Founding Fathers, yo!) would teach all kinds of Scary Bad Things.

So since we don't have any established state religion, and it says clearly in the Constitution that we aren't going to, there's no way to pick and choose in a legal, Constitutional way.

Therefore, the best answer is, in my opinion, to let religious denominations run their own programs with their own money; they're already being subsidized, to some extent, by their tax-free status.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:11 PM on November 24, 2004

Sidhedevil: this is how i know it, as a Truman thing: (i don't know if she copied the experiment he mentions, or if he was quoting her) "Now listen to this one. This malicious propaganda has gone so far that on the Fourth of July, over in Madison, Wisconsin, people were afraid to say that they believed in the Declaration of Independence. A hundred and twelve people were asked to sign a petition that contained nothing except quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One hundred and eleven of those people refused to sign that paper--many of them because they were afraid that it was some kind of subversive document and that they would lose their jobs or be called Communist. Can you imagine finding 111 people in the capital of Wisconsin that didn't know what the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights
provided? I can't imagine it." 7-29-1951

posted by amberglow at 2:20 PM on November 24, 2004

Here in Australia we thankfully had been free of the religious right trying to seriously interfere in our democracy until this year's Federal Elections.

I think that until it is accepted that religious organisations should have the same scrutiny applied to their policies as any other lobby group, they should not be given serious consideration in the governmental process.

The bigger problem is that a small minority of Christians have claimed that they represent the "One True Way" despite the beliefs of their fellows and it is these same people who are agitating the most extreme changes to governments.
posted by bangalla at 2:44 PM on November 24, 2004

bangalla, are churches tax-exempt in Australia like they are here? any "faith-based" funding yet?
posted by amberglow at 2:55 PM on November 24, 2004

Shee-devil: I guess that I should be shocked and appalled that there are actually Moonies working for the federal government. You should compile a list of suspected Moonies who work in public office and then dramatically present it to a Senate committee or something. That'll teach them for having looney beliefs and thinking they are allowed to work for our country.

I know four certified marriage counselors. None are moonies, but two are Christians. Sounds like some sort of fundamentalist jihad to me. Let's purge the ranks of social workers next, before they teach our kids to pray and stuff.
posted by esquire at 2:55 PM on November 24, 2004

AlexReynolds: Warning sign of what?
posted by esquire at 2:57 PM on November 24, 2004

Amberglow: You didn't read the list, did you? That's okay. It was a pdf file, and those sometimes are hard to open. In any event, Head Start/Early Start and two or three affiliates of Americorps on your list of purported religious organizations (of which, none involves directly giving money to schools that teach -- my point in the first place.)
posted by esquire at 3:00 PM on November 24, 2004

Esquire, did you read the link? I don't care what religion anyone follows in their private lives, as long as they don't bring it into what is a seemingly secular, government-funded education initiative.

When people are using materials created by a church that advocates "mass marriage" and special approaches to procreation to produce "sinless offspring" in a government-funded education initiative to support "healthy marriage", that strikes me as inappropriate.

Frankly, I would find it equally inappropriate if one of my fellow congregants was using ECUSA materials in a government-funded education initiative.

I am a churchgoing Christian myself, so please don't give me the sarcasm about how I must be fearing a "fundamentalist jihad" or any similar shit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:09 PM on November 24, 2004

Of course, seeing that US government officials were crowning the Reverend Moon the "King of Peace" in a government building, at government expense, earlier this year, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that some of the Unification curriculum found its way into a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" class.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:13 PM on November 24, 2004

Healthy Marriage Initiative

I bet Karl Rove is just kicking himself that he didn't think of using that name for the Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages.
posted by digaman at 3:19 PM on November 24, 2004

amberglow: are churches tax-exempt in Australia like they are here? any "faith-based" funding yet?

Negative - praise the tears of baby Jeebus.

How I wish you hadn't added that 'yet'. The amateur parroting of arguments in the US regarding gay marriage and abortion have shown how many key ministers are anti-both. Tony Abbott, the Australian Minister for Health and Ageing, had campaigned against abortion in the past. And the incumbent tyranny has already spoken out against both issues. He was coy before the election, but lost all subtlety now.

AFAIK, however, there are no faith-based funding incentives yet. Some are community based, as in any democracy, and many - many - of those are based on political/moral stance, but it's not quite at the stage of basing funding on particular denominations.

Why oh why can't we all just be like the Royal (Satanic) Navy?

Get behind me Satan...and push me along.
posted by kamus at 4:20 PM on November 24, 2004

{MaeWest} Get thee behind me, Satan...and, mmmm, while you're back there...{/MaeWest}
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:43 PM on November 24, 2004

So I'm not sure what any of that proves, except that people are generally ignorant, or that surveys are generally worthless.

Or that generic social values on which humans base their societies are not so vastly and irreconcilably different from one another. You could probably cherry pick quotes from nazi documents to the same effect.
posted by mdn at 6:44 PM on November 24, 2004

It should be noted that many Catholic priests were responsible for assisting (and sometimes leading) rebellions against Spain in Latin America. (Hidalgo, anyone?) The Bourbons, who eventually got control of the Spanish empire, weren't always so nice to the Church, so sometimes things got a littly messy. Compared to the Hapsburg dynasty, at least. TAKE THAT JEFFERSON.

I'm not exactly a member of the organized religion fanclub, but I'm not going to pretend priests aren't sometimes actually interested in helping people.

(That was the most banal history lesson ever, but I'm too busy actually studying to be bothered with writing Metafilter a short paper. Forgive me if I mixed anything up, but you get the picture.)
posted by Kleptophoria! at 6:55 PM on November 24, 2004

posted by Satapher at 7:05 PM on November 24, 2004

amberglow: As kamus pointed out there is no faith based funding in Australia, but churches of most denominations do enjoy tax free status due to their charitable works.

That said, there are annoying anomalies in anti-discrimination and other laws where church backed organisations enter the free market. For example, church owned employment agencies, which bid for government funding to job-match unemployed people, are allowed to refuse to employ a person on based on their religious belief - despite the fact that the service is supposed to be completely sectarian.
posted by bangalla at 7:20 PM on November 24, 2004

Esquire: AlexReynolds: Warning sign of what?

This faith-based shit is a clear and present warning sign of a once-proud country's foundation being revamped to prop up a corrupt fundamentalist theocracy a la Iran.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:56 PM on November 24, 2004

And it's exactly that, AlexR, that's going to take the USA from being a leading example of a society that innovates and creates, like the mid-East was a couple centuries ago, to one that is... well, like the mid-East: incapable of contributing to the advancement of science and culture.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:08 AM on November 25, 2004

thanks kamus and bangalia--start stopping them now, if they're planning what we've got--for your own sake. We've seen money going to faith-based orgs and taken away from Head Start (early childhood education) or Pell Grants (for college) and other established, successful federal programs that actually are open to all.
posted by amberglow at 8:18 AM on November 26, 2004

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