Commemorating Thomas Jefferson

By Goetz, Sidney | The Humanist, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Commemorating Thomas Jefferson


Goetz, Sidney, The Humanist


This year, Americans will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. He is, perhaps, the most illustrious of our founding fathers. Jefferson wrote the epitaph inscribed on his tomb: "Here Was Buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."

This is what he wished to be re, membered for. But we remember him for much, much more. First elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, he later became governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, Secretary of State, and then served two terms as president of the United States. james Madison, who followed him as president and who regarded him as his political mentor, upon learning of Jefferson' death July 4, 1826, just 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, said of him: "He lives and will live in the memory and gratitude of the wise and good, as a luminary of science, as a votary of liberty, as a model of patriotism, and as a benefactor of human kind."

But why author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom? What's that about? The Virginia statute was nothing more or less than the statutory precursor to the guarantee of religious freedom contained in the First Amendment to our federal Constitution. Noted historian Henry Steele Commager called the Virginia statute "probably the most famous single document in the history of religious freedom in America."

It was adopted in 1779 with the valuable assistance of james Madison but not until a proposed amendment attempting to insert the words "Jesus Christ . . . the holy author of our religion" was rejected. In his autobiography, Jefferson notes the defeat of this proposed amendment "by a great majority, is proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and the Infidel of every denomination."

With this background, we can perhaps better understand the depth of meaning inherent in President Jefferson's letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802, when, referring to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he stated: "I contemplate with solemn 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 be, tween church and state."

A number of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing school-directed prayers in our public schools were capped by the recent ruling June 24, 1992) in the case of Lee v. Weisman, which rejected as unconstitutional a nondenominational prayer offered at a public high-school graduation.

One of our major political parties, spurred by the pervasive influence of the religious far right, has engaged in open attempts to destroy Jefferson's "wall of separation." Led by Pat Robertson, his Christian Coalition, and its allies, the fight to inject sectarian prayers in our public-school systems continues un, abated despite clear and definitive statements by our nation's highest court.

So, in the january 1993 issue of the Christian American, published by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, in a column entitled "Pat's View," purporting to contain Robertson's personal response to a series of questions, we find, in response to a query, "When will American children be able to once more pray in public schools?," the statement: "The outrageous and perverse court rulings banning God from our schools can, not possibly stand much longer." And on page 23 of the same issue appears an article encouraging disobedience to the High Court's ruling by citing examples of schools which have "refused to cave in to left-wing pressure.

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