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Denis Lacorne

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Rick Perry's War on the Founding Fathers

Posted: 12/11/11 08:11 AM ET

In December 2011, Governor Rick Perry ran a TV advertisement in Iowa that said: "As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage." In doing so, Rick Perry is in fact declaring war on the very political foundation of the United States and on the Founding Fathers. Madison and Jefferson worked hard in Virginia to dis-establish the one dominant church, the Church of England. Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was greatly admired by French Enlightenment thinkers, among them Jean-Nicolas Démeunier, a lawyer by training and the Secretary of Louis the XVI's brother. Démeunier was the editor of the very influential Encyclopédie Méthodique (1784-1788). His enthusiasm was such that he reproduced Jefferson's entire Bill on Religious Freedom in the article "Etats-Unis," first published in 1786 in this famous Encyclopedia, which convinced the French, three years before their Revolution, that a modern Republic, to be viable, could only separate the state from the churches. When the Bill became law in 1786, thanks to Madison's active lobbying, it introduced a number of remarkable innovations: it upheld freedom of conscience and the neutrality of the state; it abolished the tithes collected by the Anglican clergy; and it opened access to public employment, by prohibiting all oaths of allegiance. This exceptionally ambitious law offered a veritable catalogue of natural rights. It provided that: "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is .... tyrannical." It further provided that "our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more that our opinions in physics of geometry; and it concluded that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whasoever, 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." Today, the American Supreme Court still defends the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the idea of state neutrality in matters of religion. The metaphor of the Wall of Separation, imagined by Jefferson in his famous letter to the Baptist community of Danbury (1802) is still to this day defended by the Supreme Court, which insists that, in order to prevent the return of intolerance, it is absolutely necessary to maintain a position of neutrality. Any other position would be profoundly unjust in sending the message to non-Christians "'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents (of Christian churches) that they are insiders, favored members'" (McCreary County v. ACLU, 2005). As Jefferson put it more bluntly in his Notes on the State of Virginia first published in Paris in 1784 by the printer Philippe-Denis Pierres: "The legitimate powers of Government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor break my leg."

There is today a very practical way to rediscover the importance of the idea of religious neutrality, as expressed by a key Founding Father: It takes a short visit to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History which is currently displaying the newly restored original copy of the "Jefferson Bible. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English." This "Bible" eliminates all the elements falsely based on "superstition" from the Gospels, in order to create a new civic culture based on the idea that Jesus was in fact a rational thinker, comparable to other great philosophers. In purging the New Testament of its miracles and of the very notion of the Resurrection, Jefferson claimed he was separating the "diamonds" from a "dunghill." This revisionist Bible was published by the Congress in 1904 and distributed for free to the members of the Congress until the early 1950s. It served as a useful reminder of the Founders'commitment to religious neutrality. Copies of the Smithsonian's restored edition of the Jefferson Bible should again be distributed to US law-makers, to remind them that their political tradition is solidly anchored in the philosophy of the European Enlightenment. If there is one commandment defended by the Founding Fathers it is: Thou shalt not have an established church, and certainly not Christianity to the exclusion of other religions or even atheism.