Religious Freedom Day: From Jefferson and Adams to Trump and Biden

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2024

Religious Freedom Day” is January. 16. The day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed into law on January 16, 1786. The law was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and carried forward by James Madison.

It is worth reading the whole document. It is not long. But it does contain dense prose that brings together a number of important points from theology and political philosophy. Before summarizing it, we might note how different things seem today from the time of the founding. Jefferson and Madison studied philosophy, religion, history, and politics. They spoke moderately and with reasoned arguments.

These giants are quite different from the leading Republican candidate for president, who has been talking a lot about religion. In a Christmas post, Donald Trump wrote of Joe Biden and others he calls “thugs,” “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL.” And before Christmas, in Iowa, Trump said, “Our country’s gone to hell. As soon as I get back in the Oval Office, I’ll immediately end the war on Christians … Under crooked Joe Biden, Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before. And also presidents like never before.”

This Christian nationalist dog whistle fails to acknowledge that the Constitution makes persecution of any religion illegal. It fails to recognize that in our system of checks and balances, the president does not have the absolute power to declare war on religion. Trump also fails to understand that Christmas is a time of joy and love, not grievance and resentment.

Of course, Trump is free to say what he wants. Thanks to the founders’ wisdom, we have freedom of speech along with religious liberty. The Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that there can be no war on any kind of religion. It also allows Trump to damn his opponents to hell.

Now let’s consider that Virginia Statute. The law states that faith ought to be free from coercion because God created the human mind free. The government should stay out of religion because coercive state power corrupts the nature of faith.

The law notes that the men who lead churches and states are “fallible and uninspired.” It also claims that these faulty mortals have “established and maintained false religions” throughout history. Such crooked men end up warping religion when they try to impose their opinions on others.

The statute further says that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” This means that every person has the same civil rights, no matter what they believe (or don’t believe). Civil government exists to maintain peace and good order. Beyond that it should not go. The state does not exist to enforce religious orthodoxy.

The statute concludes by paraphrasing the philosopher John Locke, saying, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” There is a suggestion here that political coercion tends to undermine truth. At the same time there is the hope that if people were left alone to develop their own consciences, truth would win out and we’d all be better off.

These are important ideas found deep in the heart of the American tradition. They also remind us of a different kind of political tone. The founders valued civility, moderation and restraint. Of course, from time to time, the founding generation engaged in heated political rhetoric. These men were human, after all. In the election of 1800, supporters of John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson of being an atheist. William Lin, a clergyman who opposed Jefferson, said the election of Jefferson would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Despite that hyperbole and animosity, Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled after their respective presidencies ended. They went on to exchange a number of letters in which they discussed religion and philosophy. These letters show that Jefferson was not an atheist. Nor was Adams an orthodox Christian. Rather, these were inquisitive minds trying to make sense of religion.

It is religious liberty that allows us to think critically about our beliefs. In the long run, wisdom is found in free and moderate discussion. And it is better to argue reasonably than to wish that your opponents should rot in hell.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article284146833.html#storylink=cpy

Is the US a Christian Nation?

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2022

In our secular society, Christianity has become an interest group vying for influence in the marketplace of ideas. It is no longer taken for granted that this is a Christian country.

Consider a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a Christian group that wanted to raise its flag outside city hall in Boston. The court is considering whether this would be an endorsement of Christianity by the city, or whether the flag is merely the private expression of Christian citizens.

Christian Flag SCOTUS Blog

If the Christian group wins the case, its victory will mean only that the group has the right to express its religious beliefs in a public forum. They must take turns along with advocates of LGBT rights, BLM protesters, and other groups who want to fly their flags. No one is arguing here that the state ought to reserve a privileged place for Christian symbols and beliefs.

American secularism is grounded in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment’s “establishment clause” prevents government entities from endorsing any faith. Its “free expression clause” permits individual citizens to express their own religious (or non-religious) beliefs.

Clarity about this is important, given the shifting religious identification of American citizens and the threat of religious violence. Our system allows people with diverse religious and non-religious beliefs to peacefully coexist. And it prevents the government from oppressing religious minorities.

Some people continue to maintain that America is a Christian nation. A recent report on NPR quoted a minister at a “patriot church” in Tennessee, who said, “You know why there’s churches everywhere and not mosques? Because we’re a Christian nation.”

But the First Amendment and our shifting demography point in another direction. In a report published at the end of 2021, the Pew Research Center indicates that the Christian population has continued to decline. Only 63% of Americans identify as Christian. Non-Christian religions (Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) account for another 6% of the population. And even among the faithful, religious belief is often lukewarm. Fewer than half of Americans report that they pray daily. Only about 40% say that religion is very important in their lives.

The fastest growing group in our country is the “nones,” those who answer “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation. The “nones” have nearly doubled since 2007, when Pew began tracking the data. Nearly one in three Americans (29%) are “nones.” This includes some atheists (4%) and agnostics (5%). But many of the non-religious simply do not identify with traditional religious categories.

It is true that at one point in our history, Christianity was the dominant faith. But even that claim needs qualification. Many of the founders had unorthodox views. George Washington attended church infrequently. When he did go, he refused to take communion. Thomas Jefferson admired Jesus, but was skeptical of the Bible’s miracles. John Adams claimed that the Christian view of the trinity was absurd. And America is the home of alternative Christian faiths such as Mormonism, Adventism, and Christian Science.

Critics will also argue, as Frederick Douglass did, that a nation founded on slavery could hardly be called “Christian.” Douglass argued against “the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” He said, “I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said something similar. She thought that Christianity contributed to the oppression of women. She worked with a team of feminists at the end of the 19th century to rewrite the Bible. The result was “The Woman’s Bible,” which thoroughly revised the Bible’s patriarchal and misogynistic texts.

And so it goes. We disagree about what Christianity means. A growing number of us no longer identify as Christian. And Christian groups must vie time on the flagpole along with other interest groups.

This is the reality of our secular system, operating under the First Amendment. Under our Constitution, religious liberty is valued while the government is prevented from endorsing any specific religion. In this country we are free to argue about the meaning of the Bible. We are also free to gather round the flagpole and argue about history and the role of religion in our public life.

Americans Disagree About the Afterlife

That’s why we need religious liberty…

Fresno Bee, November 28, 2021

Most Americans believe there is life after death. A recent survey from the Pew Center reports more than 80% of Americans believe in some form of afterlife. Sixty-one percent believe in traditional accounts of heaven or hell. Others believe in some alternative, such as reincarnation. Only 17% do not believe in an afterlife.

The headline for this report focuses on political differences. Republicans are more likely to believe in a traditional idea of heaven and hell than Democrats. Our polarization seems to extend beyond this world.

One disagreement concerns who gets into heaven. A third of Americans believe that the path to heaven is through “one true faith” (a belief that is more common among Republicans). But many Americans are open-minded about this. A majority of us think that believers of “many religions” can gain eternal life.

Of course, opinion polls are not theology. These questions run deep and the answers are shrouded in mystery. These are things to ponder in the glow of firelight on cold and foggy winter nights. Even the theologians disagree. Some claim the “narrow gate” to heaven is reserved for believers. Others believe in “universal salvation,” which is the idea that everyone goes to heaven.

And what part of you will survive? Some say your body will be resurrected. Others think the soul lives on. Others suggest that even though you die, it is the memory of you that lives on in the mind of God.

Debates about the afterlife are ancient. Socrates said death was either a dreamless sleep or a journey to another world where good is rewarded and evil is punished. In either case, a good person has nothing to fear in death. If death is a dreamless sleep, then we won’t suffer from being dead. And if the religious stories about the afterlife are true, good people will be rewarded.

Plato believed in reincarnation. He suggested that the virtues we develop in this life help us choose our next life wisely. Plato’s elaborate scheme of transmigrating souls was rejected by materialistic philosophers such as Epicurus. Epicurus taught that death really is the end. He suggested that we should stop worrying about the afterlife and focus on happiness in this life.

Christianity rejected Epicurean philosophy by insisting on the importance of resurrection and the idea of divine judgment. One worry is that without the promise of heaven and the threat of hell, we may lack the motivation to be good. There is also the need for consolation in the face of suffering and evil.

Some good people suffer and die miserable deaths. And some evil people get away with murder. The universe does not seem fair if good folks go unrewarded and evil people don’t get punished. Immortality and divine judgment appear to resolve this discrepancy.

As we ponder these issues, it might help to know that Americans have often disagreed about them. One famous disagreement is that between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson most likely did not believe in personal immortality. Jefferson was a materialist and a deist who was sympathetic to Epicurean philosophy. He seemed to believe that personality was situated in the brain and that the soul disappeared at death. Jefferson also suggested in a letter to Adams that Plato’s account of immortality was “nonsense” produced by Plato’s “foggy mind.”

But Adams believed otherwise. His belief in the immortality of the soul was central to his religious faith. In a letter to Jefferson, Adams said, “If I did not believe in a future state I should believe in no God.” In another letter, Adams said, “A future state will set all right. Without the supposition of a future state, I can make nothing of this universe, but a chaos.”

And so it goes. Adams believed that the afterlife gives meaning to this life. Jefferson thought such ideas were nonsensical.

This leads us, in conclusion, to the need for religious liberty and freedom of thought. Great minds disagree about immortality. And so do we. These questions are not answerable in this life. This means that we should be free to disagree. At some point, we will each confront this mystery directly. In the meantime, let’s leave each alone to ponder the imponderable.

Freedom is Frustrating and Pride Provokes

Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 2021

Life in a secular democracy can be frustrating. In our country, we disagree about nearly everything. Our lack of agreement is a sign of the health of our democracy. Liberty is disruptive. The confusing complexity of our secular world is worth celebrating.

Consider the controversy about an LGBTQ pride club at Fresno Pacific University. Fresno Pacific is a Christian school. It denied an application for a student pride club. The university president, Joseph Jones, explained that establishing a pride club “was not consistent with the Confession of Faith of the university.”

The Fresno Pacific Confession of Faith says, “God instituted marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for the purpose of companionship, encouragement, sexual intimacy and procreation.” Fresno Pacific is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, a church that is opposed to homosexuality and extramarital sex.

As a religious institution, Fresno Pacific has an exemption from Title IX, the law that is supposed to prohibit sex discrimination. The Department of Education explains that “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

All of this came as a surprise to student journalists who reported about it in the Fresno Pacific school newspaper. An important part of this story is about courageous student journalism. The good news is that the student journalists at Fresno Pacific were free to pursue this story.

Another part of the story is the fact that the national Campus Pride organization lists Fresno Pacific on its website as among “the absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” Campus Pride is free to publish its list. Students can complain. And the campus will likely continue its policies.

The First Amendment is the touchstone here. It guarantees religious liberty as well as freedom of speech, freedom of the press— along with the right to assemble and to petition the government. In the United States, religious organizations have a significant degree of freedom. Journalists are free to report on these things. Ordinary citizens are free to cheer or jeer in rallies in the streets. And if you want to change the law, you can speak to your congressional representative.

The Fresno Pacific case is the kind of thing that happens in secular democracies. The story undoubtedly involves anxiety and acrimony for those directly involved. There will be disagreements about what should happen next. But the story reminds us that the First Amendment is alive and well in our country.

The liberties enumerated in the First Amendment give rise to controversies that span the political spectrum. Wherever your sympathies lie, you are bound to be outraged and offended by someone in a world that is organized under the First Amendment.

On the one hand, anti-vax and anti-mask protesters make First Amendment appeals and disrupt school board meetings. Some Trumpians have celebrated the protests of Jan. 6, linking it to the kind of assembly protected by the First Amendment. This shows us an important limit. You can rally and protest. But violence is not protected.

On the other hand, LGBTQ people have a right to speak out against Fresno Pacific. And in our world, religion is strictly regulated in public schools. One interesting recent case involves a high school coach in the state of Washington who was fired for leading his players in prayer. Among the issues in that case is an atheist family who complained that the coach did not provide their son with adequate playing time because he refused to pray.

And so it goes. There will always be plenty of controversies to keep the lawyers busy and the critics buzzing. The political philosopher Robert Nozick famously said, “liberty disrupts patterns.” We might add that liberty also disrupts social harmony and peace of mind.

Some may prefer a world where everyone conforms and obeys. But that’s not America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” And if you don’t agree, in our country you are free to say so.

Giving Thanks for Simple Things

Covid-19 has transformed Thanksgiving.  This year we should shelter within our bubbles and stay close to home.  Rather than complaining about a downsized holiday, let’s use this as an opportunity to rediscover the wisdom of living modestly and being thankful.

Ancient wisdom celebrates gratitude and simplicity.  Ancient sages teach us to be grateful for simple things and to celebrate abundance without extravagance.

Thanksgiving has strayed far from this idea.  Rather than a time to count your blessings and give thanks, it became an orgy of over-indulgence.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a department store advertising gimmick.  The Black Friday frenzy is far removed from gratitude.  Good riddance to these extravagances. 

The Puritans of New England would be appalled that this festival of gluttony and greed commemorated their colonial adventure.  The Puritans connected thanksgiving with repentance and purification.  Instead of feasting, early Americans typically linked the ritual of giving thanks to fasting. Thomas Jefferson called for” public days of fasting and thanksgiving” when he was governor of Virginia.  During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln called for several days of “fasting and thanksgiving.”  In 1863, when Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving, he called for a day of prayer and “humble penitence.”   

This may go too far for those of us with a more secular orientation.  But there is wisdom in humility and abstinence.  You don’t have to be a Puritan to understand this.  Abstinence clarifies values.  Fasting heightens appreciation for simple things.  A thanksgiving feast that breaks a fast should consist of modest fare, eaten mindfully.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and abstinence are linked in most of the world’s traditions.  Muslims practice something like this during Ramadan.  The Buddha fasted and meditated on the way to enlightenment.  Ancient Taoist texts speak of “fasting of the mind” giving rise to the freedom of emptiness. 

This is not as far out and mystical as it sounds.  Mindful self-restraint quiets envy and desire.  The consuming self is like a vacuum.  It sucks things in: food, pleasure, and possessions.  But all of this frantic sucking produces anxiety, fear, greed, and envy. 

The mindful self stops sucking.  It becomes less focused on its own emptiness and more aware of its secret abundance.  The Greek sage Epicurus said that we already possess all that we need in abundance.  But we are confused.  We mistake wealth for happiness.  And we allow greed to make us ungrateful.  

When we discover self-sufficient abundance, it overflows.  It then becomes easier to give—and to give thanks.  The consuming self is a sucker and a taker.  The grateful self is content with what it has.  And in its contentment, it discovers compassion.

The ancient Greeks advise us to gratefully accept what fate gives us.  Seneca recommended an occasional fast as a reminder to be thankful.  This trains the spirit to be content no matter what fate sends our way.  Stoic serenity does not depend on money or good fortune.  Rather, it is built upon simplicity and gratitude. 

Seneca expressed these ideas in a letter criticizing the Saturnalia, the Roman equivalent of our holiday season.  He complained that preparations for the annual orgy went on all year.  And he noted that the season culminated in drunkenness and vomiting.  Seneca said it is wise to avoid all of that and to learn to “celebrate without extravagance.” 

The pandemic can help us re-learn this ancient lesson.  The usual extravagances have been cancelled.  And we are forced to abstain.  Rather than complain, let’s rediscover the wisdom of simplicity and gratitude.