“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign 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 between church and state.” Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802
President Jefferson did not mince his words. He drew a clear distinction between what is personal and sacred, and what remained secular and public. History had taught Jefferson that invoking the Almighty usually ended in bloody holy wars, rendering effective civil government unworkable. Of all the founders, President Jefferson grasped the importance of detaching faith from law.
If you follow my blog you already know I’m not a big fan of Jefferson. His actions, as well as his writings on race alone, provide a legacy of duplicitous thinking. For example the practice of beating young slaves daily was of no matter to the master of Monticello. But on the issue of natural rights, his Lockean take on the social contract– Jefferson’s views ring with authority.
This morning the Idaho Legislature killed a bill in committee that would “Add the Words,” (protecting the LGBT community) to the Human Rights Act in Idaho. Following three days of impassioned testimony from supporters and detractors, HB2 fell in a 13-4 vote. A significant amount of testimony came from various churches on both sides of the issue. The fearful tended toward the shrill, impassioned by their emotions. One fellow, in particular, ranted that his wife shouldn’t have to share a public bathroom with a transgender individual. He was so riled up the committee chair admonished him to control himself. His answer, “Well Praise the Lord.”
Now the Gay community in Idaho didn’t seek this fight. These folks have done their best get along in society. The term ‘closeted’ comes to mind here. The threat of eviction, job termination, and outright violence has demanded a covenant of silence. However, over time, the preponderance of social, economic, and political mistreatment has galvanized this movement for simple justice. These citizens have had enough. They ask for equal protection under the law in explicit, measurable language to deter the countless harms endured, that were so eloquently enumerated in this week’s testimony.
As a student of American History I understand this disconnect between contending factions. We are a nation founded under the tenants of the Enlightenment. Jefferson actually lifted John Locke’s language when he described ‘natural rights’ which he articulated as ‘certain unalienable rights.’ And at the same time America is one of the most religious nations in the world. Always has been. The trick is remembering to separate these two competing voices of law and of faith. Even my debate students were taught to keep God out of the tournaments. Once invoked, the open exchange of ideas is over. God has spoken.
For the longevity of the American Creed, our law makers must use their heads when shaping legislation. When kneeling to pray, worship with all of your heart. I do.
But please leave those competing, conflicting, diverse, religious convictions at the door of the halls of law. Contending voices achieve nothing but a counter productive cacophony of discord.
And next time . . . Add the Words.
Gail Chumbley is a retired history teacher and the author of the nonfiction work, River of January