ESSAY- Texas Taliban: Why they still fear Jefferson
The impending celebration of Independence Day comes about four months after the powerful Texas Board of Education voted to undermine one of our Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms; namely, that of religion, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the extreme religious right often claims that our government is based on Christianity, and their acts of textbook censorship and revision of American history suggest that a Christian Taliban is on the rise.
They typically argue that the founders were Christian men who crafted laws based upon the biblical Ten Commandments. Our laws and their antecedents do basically agree with the Ten Commandments, but so have the laws and mores of most civilizations, as they were all drawn from human experience. And although the founders generally attended Christian churches, they wisely realized that the populace was religiously diverse and that no particular religion or sect should be formally recognized.
As a member of the Board of Visitors of William and Mary, Jefferson helped abolish its divinity school and replace its two faculty members with professors of science and law. He included neither a chapel nor a professor of religion at the University of Virginia. As for Jesus, Jefferson did revere him–- but as a reformer, a teacher of ethics, and as a moral example to mankind. In his later years, Jefferson produced an edited version of the New Testament, from which he redacted what he called the "corrupted" passages, which he believed were added by partisan priests promoting their new religion.
While Jefferson was raised Anglican, he was so proud of his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which disestablished the Anglican church as his state's official church, that authorship of the Statute was one of the three accomplishments he requested for inscription upon his grave marker. He and the other framers the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were deists, not theists, and were inspired by the ideals of the European Enlightenment– by thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Bacon, and Locke.
Now, seemingly unaware that our Constitution is a secular document, the reactionary members of the Texas Board of Education push Creationism as an opposing view into their biology textbooks. And they have downplayed Thomas Jefferson to just a few short sentences in their approved history books. To see why his ideas provoke such fear, one need only read Jefferson:
"I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."–to Benjamin Rush, 1800
"I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others." –to Edward Dowse, 1803
"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God."–in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-83
"Whenever... preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art or science." –to P. H. Wendover, 1815
"I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this [i.e., the purchase of an apparent geological or astronomical work] can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If [this] book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God's sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose." –to N. G. Dufief, 1814
" .. I am myself an empyric in natural philosophy, suffering my faith to go no further than my facts. I am pleased, however, to see the efforts of hypothetical speculation, because by the collisions of different hypotheses, truth may be elicited, and science advanced in the end."–to George P. Hopkins, 1822
"History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose." –to Baron von Humboldt, 1813
"And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors." –to John Adams, 1823
Regarding the University of Virginia, which he founded:
"This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."–to William Roscoe, 1820
"... a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution." –to Thomas Cooper, 1814
Raised in Charlottesville, David Y. Miller recently retired to Stoney Creek in Nelson after his career as an aerospace engineer.