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The Founding Fathers vs. religious tyranny

THE religious right is trying to justify its brand of politics by invoking the memory of our Founding Fathers. The least we owe that unequaled generation of Americans is to nip this blasphemy in the bud before it has a chance to become a ``fact.'' Our Founding Fathers were not conservative Christians; most of them were Deists. The historian James Flexner described George Washington's religious views this way: ``Although not believing in the doctrines of the churches, he was convinced that a divine force, impossible to define, ruled the universe, and that this `Providence' was good.'' This was, essentially, the religious outlook of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and most of the Founding Fathers.

The idea that Jefferson's name should be invoked by the religious right today is doubly ironic, considering Jefferson's experience while running for president. In 1800, the religious right of his day attacked Jefferson for, among other reasons, his opposition to Bible reading in the schools. The Rev. William Linn warned that the election of Jefferson would ``destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society''; it would be ``rebellion against God.'' The choice for every American, one newspaper declared, is: ``Shall I continue in allegiance to God and a religious President, or impiously declare for Jefferson and no God!!!'' Jefferson never lowered himself to respond to the ``negative ads'' of his day, but later he wrote a friend that some preachers had opposed him because they ``had got a smell of union between Church and State.'' They had correctly determined that he would fight such a union, he said.

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Jefferson was no atheist, and considered himself to be a Christian. Indeed, he revered Jesus as the ``most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character'' who ever lived. It was what theologians had done to Jesus' teachings that Jefferson had no use for.

That is why Jefferson, working one night in the White House during his first term, literally cut out passages from the Bible and glued back what was left to form ``The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.'' (Princeton University has just issued a reprint of Jefferson's work, the original of which is at the Smithsonian.)

Jefferson explained what he had done this way: ``In extracting the pure principles which Jesus taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves.''

Jefferson believed fervently that God gave man the faculty of reason to be used. Dumas Malone, the great Jeffersonian scholar who recently completed his six-volume biography, said: ``Jefferson's own religious views, which he regarded as wholly private like his domestic affairs, tended toward deism. . . . If he was ever drawn into an attack on any Church it was not because it was a religious organization but because it had assumed a political character, or because it limited, in one way or another, the freedom of the mind -- on which, as he never ceased to believe, the progress of the human species toward happiness depends. . . .

``In religion as in economics, Jefferson was an advocate of laissez-faire.''

Jefferson, of course, was not alone in insisting on a ``separation of Church and State'' (he invented the phrase). James Madison, the father of the Constitution, repudiated ``the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. and Religion neither can be duly supported.''

In 1832 Madison went so far as to declare: ``The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.'' The Constitution, of course, imposes no religious test or qualification for voters or officeholders; nor does it invoke or allude to the Almighty.

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The religious right we shall always have with us. They are welcome to their religious beliefs, but they are not welcome to use government to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. The idea that the name of Jefferson should be invoked in such an attempt is truly unconscionable. Let the last word, then, go to Mr. Jefferson, who wrote a friend: ``I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.''

Tim Hackler, a former Senate press secretary, is producing a documentary on Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

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