Trapped by Religion

Jefferson Attacked as an infidel with the Constitution being snatched out of his hands by the American eagle at the behest of God (upper right)

Do you ever wake up feeling trapped by religion? Not your own, but somebody else’s? If so, you’re like millions of Americans. Sadly, there is no medication you can take for this condition.

The religion, of course, is Christianity, and it has held the Western World, not just America, in its vise for nearly two millennia. We’re all in thrall, like it or not, not only because it’s so pervasive, but because by the period of the Middle Ages it had absolute power over everyone – even kings and emperors, even an army of its own – and it has relinquished this power only very reluctantly and then only when forced.

We all suffer as a result: atheists, who don’t want to believe in any gods, polytheists, who want to believe in all but are told they can believe in only one; Jews, who are told they need to get with the Jesus program; Christians, who are told they are worshiping Jesus the wrong way; Mormons, who are told they’re only a cult and not Christians at all.

But don’t feel too sorry for the Mormons. I remember when the Mormon missionaries visited me some thirty years ago. They had many jokes to tell about Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, about how they are not Christians but cults – ironically, the same thing mainstream Christians say about Mormons. The same thing hurting Mitt Romney today.

Mitt Romney is trapped by religion as well even as he seeks to trap the rest of us.

You might think from this that I hate religion. I’ve been accused of atheism before when I’ve been critical of Christian fundamentalism as though if you’re not a Christian you are an atheist. But I’m not, of course. I’m very religious and I’m not an atheist but a polytheist. For me, all gods are real. I just don’t owe anything to any desert gods.

So then I get accused of doing Satan’s work by not believing he exists.

Trapped by religion. And it ain’t my own. I know you feel me.

The popular meme on the Christian Right is that morality is impossible without their religion. They never quite manage to explain how civilization even got a start if that is true: monotheism of any kind is a late comer on the state of history and there were powerful and complex cultures with law codes long before anyone came up with the idea of One God. But now we’re supposed to believe that if they are kept from permeating every aspect of our culture through legislation of their religious beliefs, that society will collapse.

Talk about being trapped by religion.

They say like the Tea Partiers they want to take the country back but America never looked like they claim it did, and we were at our most powerful after liberalism literally had its way with America after the New Deal. They can’t explain that. So they just ignore it.

Our history gets stolen in the name of this meme, not only events but individuals like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. There is a thriving business in inventing quotes from these gentlemen to support state-sponsored religion even though neither of them were supporters of the idea and Jefferson was vehemently opposed. If you go to his grave, you will know this. It takes mo more research than that. Look what Jefferson had inscribed on his gravestone:

“Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom

And Father of the University of Virginia.”

That’s it.

And Jefferson’s idea of religious freedom was not that currently espoused by fundamentalists, which has to do only with their imagined freedom to ignore our freedoms. No, Jefferson’s idea of religious freedom was religious freedom for all:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

It’s safe to say Jefferson felt trapped by religion too.  No one should have to go to church. No one should have to support it with his tax dollars and should be free to believe what they want without being discriminated against. Jefferson believed this to be a species of natural right as he makes clear in the third paragraph.

Jefferson felt so strongly on this subject that in his Notes on the State of Virginia he condemned coercion in matters of religion:

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII)

He went on to say,

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII)

In the same book he explained what he was struggling against: the legacy of Christian intolerance dating back to the Theodosian Code.

By our own act of Assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office or employment, ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second, by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years’ imprisonment without bail. A fathers right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of the court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of civil freedom. (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII)

But what Jefferson wrote here is under attack as Jefferson himself is under attack (Barton 2012). We have a First Amendment Establishment Clause inspired by the Jefferson’s Virginia Statute and we have Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution which prohibits activities under that 1705 law but you wouldn’t know it from diatribe after diatribe.

For Jefferson, religious freedom was inseparable from tolerance and natural law, argued Jefferson, did not trap us but liberated us so that we didn’t end up dead or looking like fools.

But now it seems the choice is narrowing once more: we can choose to be hypocrites or we can choose to be fools. Don’t worry about what Jefferson said, or what Washington said. They’re just going to change that anyway, as David Barton has recently attempted to do in his latest collection of lies (The Jefferson Lies, 2012).

Jefferson said my beliefs are okay; your beliefs are okay too; it’s all good with him:

“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII)

That this was a strongly held belief for Jefferson is proven by something he said about the Virginia Statue he considered his life’s second greatest accomplishment:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination. (Autobiography, p. 40)

What those busily revising history don’t understand is that even if they turned Jefferson into a Christian they could not undermine his essential tolerance that stands so at odds with their own intolerance, because it matters a great deal to them whether you worship twenty gods or no god. Because if any of us dare to reject their doctrines we imperil their chances at redemption.

Their “shining city on a hill” allows for no tolerance as they have made clear again and again since they began their takeover of the Republican Party in the wake of Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.

There was once a vision for America that allowed for real freedom of religion, one based on tolerance rather than bigotry, one that took away Christianity’s self-granted special privilege. They want that 1705 law back and they want it bad.

So if you are like me feeling trapped by religion, there is a very good reason for it: you are. And all you can do about it is vote in 2012 and breathe the free air – while you can.

Update (10:56 am): Links added to source of Jefferson’s comments. In the interest of complete accuracy, a quote of questionable provenance has been replaced. We will leave those to David Barton.

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