Friday, November 25, 2005

The Godless Constitution Chapter 5 - The "Infidel" Mr. Jefferson

This chapter deals with, you guessed it, Abigail Adams. But it also mentions Thomas Jefferson and that is who I want to focus on. Jefferson is a key figure in the history of Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary America, and he seems to have largely shared the author's point of view. One could argue that their focus on Jefferson is a bit self serving. One Amazon review noted "a failure to discuss any evidence that is contrary to our authors' thesis."

I don't think this assertion is accurate; I've pointed out, for example, the author's see several positive effects of New England intermingling of church and state. That said, this is a book with a point of view, a polemic. They label it so in the first chapter. It is understood that polemic expresses a particular argument; if this Amazon Reviewer wishes an argument in favor of religious correctness, there are any number of sources he could turn. To criticize this book for not presenting completely both sides of the fence is to argue that the authors should have written a different book.

Jefferson believed that religion was a purely private concern. He was a religious person, spending a great deal of time studying the Bible, and described his own creed as "the philosophy of Jesus." Which is, I have to admit, close to what our current President has said. That said, he did not have a great deal of faith in priests or other church leaders. Rather he described them as "mountebacks" and "a band of dupes and imposters."

Obviously these kinds of comments did not endear Mr. Jefferson to the religious leaders of his day; particularly those religious leader who favored religious correctness. But Mr. Jefferson is consistent. If the greatest religious benefit comes from a personal and individual and private communion with God, and if priests or politically ordained religion can distract us from seeking that experience, well then they are obviously harmful.

There is, in the Book of Mormon, an extended parable about a vineyard, which we understand to represent the House of Israel or the Church of God. The Lord of the Vineyard, representing God, tends to his vineyard. At one point he returns to view the one of his vines, and laments it's condition.
47 But what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh. And it grieveth me that I should hew down all the trees of my vineyard, and cast them into the fire that they should be burned. Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard?

48 And it came to pass that the servant said unto his master: Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard - —have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, I say, is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?
This can be read many ways, I suppose. But I've always seen it as a metaphor for letting the trappings of religion distract one from the purpose of religion. The purpose of religion is to place one in harmony with God, which is a very personal process (which is one of the reasons I haven't felt to discuss religion overmuch in this blog). But one can be come distracted by the trappings of religion, the branches, so that one neglects the roots of religion; this experience with the transcendent.

And I believe this is one of the reasons Jefferson was right to describe a necessary wall between church and state.

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