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Jefferson’s ‘General Religion’

By Peter N. Berger — February 15, 2005 5 min read
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No religion deserves equal time for its doctrines in school because no religion is entitled to any time.

Thomas Jefferson believed that religion was private, “solely between man and his God.” For our national life he recommended simply a “general religion” of “peace, reason, and morality.” Today his benign hope is eluding us.

The First Amendment prohibits our government from imposing an official religion or preventing any citizen from worshipping according to his beliefs. In fact, religious freedom is the First Amendment’s first order of business. Jefferson saw this “wall of separation between Church and State” as an essential safeguard against the “ceaseless strife” of religious intolerance that “soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” That bloody legacy explains why George Washington opposed “any species of religious persecution.” It’s why James Madison regarded the “distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both.”

Partisans at both extremes are currently testing the wall. A Pennsylvania school board recently required teachers to include “intelligent design” in their science classes, and officials in other states are pursuing the same course. Intelligent design, an alternative to evolution, implies a role for a Creator in nature without actually mentioning God. Explicitly teaching Genesis would qualify as creationism, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1987.

Meanwhile, in response to intelligent-design proposals, a federal judge in Georgia has ruled that schools can’t place labels in textbooks describing evolution as “a theory, not a fact” that needs to be “approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Have we really reached the fevered point at which open minds, careful study, and critical thinking are out of place in a science class? When it comes to approaching Darwin’s ideas with an open yet critical mind, I doubt Mr. Darwin would object. On the other hand, while the judge was overreacting, it’s clear what he was overreacting against. The label had a point that went beyond a simple reminder that students need to think.

Darwin isn’t a secular rebuttal to the first verse of Genesis. That’s why his book is titled The Origin of Species, not the origin of everything. Evolution shouldn’t be taught as if it disproves the existence of God.

It also shouldn’t be suppressed as heresy. The only heresy in a public school science class is bad science. And most scientists, not most atheist scientists, endorse Darwin’s conclusions. His theory may conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis, but that doesn’t make it bad science. It doesn’t even necessarily make it bad religion.

Evolution doesn’t deal with the origin of the primordial soup, the first cause of the big bang, or the breath of God. Neither should science classes. They also shouldn’t teach Bishop Ussher’s 17th-century creationist calculation that the universe is 6,009 years old—not because he was a bishop, but because it’s bad science.

Public schools are an instrument of government. Requiring them to alter what they teach or do to satisfy any group’s religious convictions is wrong. No religion deserves equal time for its doctrines in school because no religion is entitled to any time. Evolution should be taught in terms of what it credibly explains. Parents and churches, not schools, should deal with what it doesn’t explain.

Our nation’s founders weren’t antagonistic toward religion. Washington viewed it as “indispensable.” Jefferson lamented his contemporaries’ religious ignorance as a dangerous “chasm.” But he and Madison agreed it was even more dangerous to license public officials, like school boards, to “dictate modes or principles of religious instruction.” My assurance of religious freedom rests on my commitment to religious freedom for everybody else. If I allow you to lose yours, losing mine isn’t far behind.

This proper caution has led some to question whether even a reference to God should be purged from government discourse and documents. A new federal lawsuit filed in California is seeking to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Founding Fathers never recited the pledge. It was written in 1892 by a socialist, Congress adopted it in 1942, and just one year later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students couldn’t be compelled to recite it. They can even leave the room. “Under God” wasn’t added until 1954, as a rebuke to Communism.

Religious freedom isn’t a matter of proselytizing under government auspices or censoring occasional references to God.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs contend that atheist students shouldn’t have to choose to leave the room to escape the reference to God. The court made a similar point in 1962, when the justices banned school prayer.

The court was right. Prayer is an explicitly and entirely religious exercise. But if we accept the premise that the pledge’s reference to God is a comparable intrusion of religion, what then do we make of the motto on our money, “In God We Trust”? Is our currency a violation of the First Amendment?

If you think it is, you’ve got some editing ahead of you, starting with the Declaration of Independence. That’s where our revolution rests on “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” It’s where the “Creator” endows us with rights. It’s where the founders appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world” and rely on “the protection of Divine Providence.”

You’ll also need to gut Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which invokes the purposes of “the Almighty,” the “providence of God,” and the “judgments of the Lord.” You’ll need to strip away its concluding exhortation, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

Wilson’s call to make the world “safe for democracy” and FDR’s response to the “infamy” of Pearl Harbor will need expurgating, too. Both include a reference to God.

If you can justify all that in the name of the U.S. Constitution, you’ve still got another document you’ll have to cut. It’s the Constitution, which pointedly dates itself “in the year of our Lord.”

Washington was adamant that religion be left out of the Constitution. Apparently he didn’t view a simple reference to God as a violation of religious liberty. Neither apparently did Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Wilson, or Roosevelt.

Free speech isn’t about stretching the limits of obscenity. It’s about the right to speak your mind on public issues without fear of government suppression. Similarly, religious freedom isn’t a matter of proselytizing under government auspices or censoring occasional references to God. It’s about worshipping freely without fear that we’ll lose our rights, our homes, or our lives because of what we believe. The more we yield to fervor and cater to hypersensitivity, the more we’ll degrade the protection and endanger the rights the First Amendment was framed to guarantee.

Madison conceded it wasn’t always easy “to trace the line of separation” between religion and government. But excessive zeal at either extreme just inflames the other. Our rights were never meant to be understood or enjoyed in the absence of common sense and tolerant restraint.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Jefferson’s ‘General Religion’

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