Man Without Qualities

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Under God? No, Under "God." II

One of the small pleasures of visiting the nation's capital is the chance to play a schoolboy again. The walls of the Jefferson Memorial, for example, include these excerpts from his writings:

Almighty God hath created the mind free. ... All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion ... No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.

One must be a little careful with these excerpts, especially because they are drawn from several different sources - in some cases even where they appear to flow in a kind of argument. But with that in mind, it is fairly obvious that Jefferson was either dreadfully intellectually inconsistent of he did not consider a man's right not to suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief ... in matters of religion to be inconsistent with the nation always recalling that it is not possible for the liberties of a nation [to] be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God.

Standing in that wonderful marble building on the banks of the Tidal Basin, I couldn't help but smile at how obvious it is that Jefferson would have brusquely dismissed a claim that national slogans such as "under God" or "In God We Trust" were prohibited by the First Amendment.

Jefferson, of course, was not the author of the First Amendment - he was not even the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. But Jefferson's thinking, writings and works were clearly major influences on the phrasing and original understanding of the First Amendment, as is reflected in the commonplace (and often inappropriate) citing to his "wall of separation" letter. That letter articulates more separation between church and state than the First Amendment itself requires. That's fine: the letter explains his own presidential policies - which differed from those of his predecessors - but does not claim that his policies were required by the Constitution or that those of his predecessors were prohibited by that document.

As the above inscribed excepts demonstrate, even Jefferson probably couldn't have suppressed a wheeze of exasperation at the arguments recently presented in that other marble palace not too far away.

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