Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/18/2010

Thomas Jefferson, the Texas Board of Education, and the Violence of Ignorance

Unfortunately for me, I grew up in a household where the meaning of the U.S. Constitution was a matter of great importance. My father, a Baptist clergyman, has been a member of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (1) for most of my lifetime. As a Baptist who understands the history of the persecution of religious minorities in this country and elsewhere, he taught the vital and radical importance of the First Amendment’s guarantee that our government cannot do anything in regard to establishing religion. He understood what the majority of Baptists do not understand today, that the disestablishment guarantee of the First Amendment is the basis of Americans’ freedom to be religious.

My father’s teaching the importance of the First Amendment’s guarantee that our government cannot meddle in affairs of the spirit (if that’s what religion is all about) is unfortunate because that teaching makes living in the United States in 2010 a problematic proposition for me. The Baptists who, because of their persecution both in the early life of this country and in other countries, clung to the radical idea that governments cannot be the arbiters of religious belief are responsible for the sound bite “separation of church and state” which epitomizes the American understanding that the government should keep its nose out of activities of church(es), and that church(es) keep their noses out of government activity. The Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, as any conscious American knows, wrote the letter to President Jefferson that prompted his formulation of the meaning of the First Amendment.

Baptists and other fundamentalist christians in the United States today, however, flexing their muscles under the pride of their perception that they are in the majority of the population, have forsaken the radical idea that freedom to practice one’s religion is the first of the natural rights with which all human beings are “endowed by their Creator.” The religious descendants of the very people who helped move the language of the First Amendment from the somewhat abstract to the concrete are engaged in a war against the religious freedom that makes their existence possible.

The war they wage is born of two human characteristics eschewed by traditional christianity: ignorance and pride (2).

The ignorance and pride that allow fundamentalists—who want their views of both church and state to prevail at all costs, to be entrenched as the justification for their denying religious freedom to others and to end our religious pluralism—is deliberate. They know better. They have simply decided they will force their views, in the face of all historical and logical evidence that those views are spurious, into any situation in this country they can corrupt. Their pride of their (assumed) position as keepers of the true meaning of our democracy allows them to see themselves as the Constantines of the twenty-first century. They believe they know (mostly for political reasons) what is best for the country—as well as what the Founders intended in the First Amendment.

Their first great spiritual American forebear, Roger Williams, thought of those who would institute state-sponsored religion this way:

The unknowing zeal of Constantine and other emperors did more hurt to Christ Jesus’ crown and kingdom than the raging fury of the most bloody Neros. In the persecutions of the latter, Christians were sweet and fragrant, like spice pounded and beaten in mortars. But these good emperors, persecuting some erroneous persons, Arius, etc., and advancing the professors of some truths of Christ—for there was no small number of truths lost in those times—and maintaining their religion by the material sword—I say, by this means Christianity was eclipsed, and the professors of it fell asleep. (3)

Because, Roger Williams asserted, Constantine and other rulers proclaimed christianity to be “state religion” (or one sect of christianity to have the imprimatur of the state over other sects), they destroyed the vitality and the truth of christianity. “Truths were lost” and the “professors of [christianity] fell asleep.” In the process of becoming a state religion (or the religion on which a government was “founded”?) christianity lost the Truth (for example, the Puritans of Massachusetts were unable to hear the Biblical truths Williams and other dissenters preached) and christians rested on their laurels as the arbiters of “official” religion rather than living the lives christianity demanded.

For this reason, Williams said, a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” (4) is absolutely necessary.

The phrase the fundamentalists (under the leadership of the Southern Baptists) decry the most as somehow undermining christianity in the United States—because, they say, Thomas Jefferson made it up and it has become wrongly associated with the First Amendment—was written by their first American spiritual ancestor, Roger Williams.

In their willful and deliberate ignorance and pride, the Texas Board of Education have decided, largely on the basis of highly personal and political writings by such fundamentalists as David Barton and James Dobson, to remove Thomas Jefferson from the textbooks Texas school students (and, by a bizarre refutation of free enterprise, most of the school students in the nation) read in order to understand the Enlightenment background of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They have replaced Jefferson’s contribution with the Puritan ideologue, John Calvin.

The bloc of seven fundamentalist christian Republican members of the Board, followed by the other three ineffectual and spineless Republicans, have won a great victory of violence against U.S. history. They have, in Roger Williams understanding, “eclipsed” christianity and have “fallen asleep” in the pride and willful ignorance of christians who wield temporal, governmental power.

The violence of the “culture wars” has now reached the stage of the official re-writing of history. Americans believed the Soviet Communists’ violent removal of the Reformation and the Renaissance from the curriculum of fifty years of education in their own country was deplorable.
(1 .)
(2 .) My father also taught me a great deal about the Bible and other authoritative texts of christianity. I can proof-text with the best of the fundamentalists:
“. . .and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, RSV).
“We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s  conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2, RSV).
“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16, RSV).
(3 .) Williams, Roger. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, ed. Richard Groves.M acon, GA: Mercer University Press. 2001, 142.  Quoted in: Underwood, William D. “The metaphor of the wall of separation: Baptists and the First Amendment.”  Baptist History and Heritage 43.3 (2008): 27+.
(4 .)  Quoted in: Balmer, Randall. Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament. New York: Basic Books. 2006, 42.


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