Very few people, except my friend Chris, remember the summer of 1787. It was a wild time, a chaotic time, a time of new beginnings, a time of reflection. It was when Thomas Jefferson released his in-depth remembrance of his home state, Notes on the State of Virginia.
In that book is a section called Religion, which I have recently read and digested and am currently processing into a blog post. This work has the pleasure of being one of the earliest broadly distributed arguments for the freedom of religion in our young United States of America.
Thomas Jefferson was born in the Virginia Colony in 1743, the son of an English planter. He inherited 5,000 acres when his father died in 1757. Can you imagine? There seems to be some kind of relationship between being extremely well-to-do and historical relevance. Someone should dig into that.
There’s a famous line that is often used in arguments about religious freedom that I myself have quoted, but have now found the source:
“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.”
There is a common theme in early defenses of the federal government around what the government is intended to do. A point agreed upon by most is that it should defend against injurious acts by others. Said differently, the government should protect us from one another, but not much more.
This brings to mind those “Don’t Tread on Me” flags you see that make your skin crawl ever-so-slightly. I have realized over time that this sentiment and Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments are not too different, indeed they are only a razors width apart. However, what makes Thomas Jefferson’s so much more palatable is that he is speaking for the betterment of everyone. The character with the DToM flag is speaking for himself only.
At least that is what I assume that’s what they mean by the word “Me.”
TJ and crew knew that they were building a new American nation. They knew also that whatever they came up with would be a model for the future of the world. They wanted to get it right and with that rightness in mind they were looking to put pen to paper and actually get things done. In some ways this meant a little gambling.
TJ points to this gamble with this quote:
“… the time for affixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest.”
This slays me because of the plain truth of it and the sheer exhilarating risk. What is honest to me is not necessarily honest to you. But that is the chance you take when you found a nation, I suppose. That is the chance you take when you are rolling the dice on behalf of the next 100 generations.
He makes a lot of other great points about how religion cannot be managed by force — that there are too many religions and too many people practicing them that management by force has never worked. His hope on religion is, like his hope on good government, is that ultimately the truth will be apparent to those who seek it.
And so we are free to seek our own truths in 2021.