10/04/2010 05:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Darkeing of the American Mind?

"The mind, once enlightened, cannot again become dark."
- Thomas Paine to Abbe Raynal, 1782

Thomas Jefferson wanted only three things on his tombstone: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statutes of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." No other achievement could match, in his mind, the testimony his life gave to political and religious freedom and freedom of thought. A child of the Enlightenment as was Thomas Paine, he saw a future pregnant with human happiness as long as conscience and reason remained unfettered. America, of course, has not always lived up to Jefferson's epitaph or Paine's dictum. This is one of those times.

The United States is a country founded on an idea enshrined in a document. Political freedom, as the Constitution envisions it, results from a playing field that protects the minority from majority abuse while at the same time allowing the majority to rule. The key is to constrain majorities thru counterbalancing sources of power.

At least two forces threaten political freedom today. One is the concentration of economic and political power in the same hands so that they become mutually reinforcing at the expense of minority rights. When this happens, economic power has no counterbalance in the halls of government and can easily become both selfish and sustained by the very power that is supposed to keep it in check. The rich grow richer and the middle class shrinks in both wealth and political power. The impact of money on Congressional races and votes and the tendency of those votes to reward perennial economic favorites (most recently through bailouts) illustrate the current problem. Seeing this conjoining of economic and political power among both Democrats and Republicans, the public casts a plague on both their houses.

A second threat is intolerance for compromise. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans and 53 percent of independents admire political leaders who refuse to compromise (as did 47 percent of Democrats) in a recent poll (SHRM/National Journal, September 2010).
Yet it is when politicians (and their supporters) accept a rage of views and seek negotiated agreement that chances increase that laws will emerge that promote the best long-term interests of the nation. When we try to suppress and overwhelm the opposition, when alternative ideas are subjected to hyperbolic and cynical criticism or are shouted or voted down with parliamentary maneuvers simply because they can be, political decisions (and the political system) lack quality, credibility and legitimacy.

Religious freedom, as the Founders saw it, was not the same as religious tolerance. Indeed, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson rejected that equation, noting that what we tolerate today we may choose not to tolerate tomorrow. Religious freedom for them meant freedom of conscience and keeping the hand of government off religious practice - and religious practice off the hand of government.

At least two forces also threaten this core principle. The first is the use of faith in Christianity as a test of the acceptability of political candidates or office holders. The Founders refused to create a Christian nation (though most agreed that religion is a firm support for morality), understanding from history that when religious doctrine is embedded in government, both suffer. When Americans charge that President Obama is a Muslim who thus cannot be trusted with the Presidency, they not only violate truth but impose a religious test manifestly rejected by Article Six of the Constitution. The second is the view that some religious expression can be treated as less worthy of freedom than others. Where to build a mosque - or church or temple - is a subject for zoning codes not political debate. Freedom of religion is faith-blind.

Freedom of thought, as the Founders envisioned it, meant the ability to think without conforming to the views of others. The Founders had faith that unfettered reason would produce good government, even if some of that reason was crazy or and ill-conceived. As Jefferson put it, "we may tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it."

At least two forces threaten freedom of thought. One is the tyranny of the majority. When some groups verbally threaten and abuse others who try to express contrary ideas, they seek to force a conformity that allows poor reasoning to flourish. This is certainly the outcome if not the intent of one-sided talk radio and cable news shows as well as well-founded and largely unregulated single-interest groups. It is also the outcome when we, as Americans, listen and look at only those sources of information that match our political views. Self-censorship is its own form of tyranny. Threatening opponents with social ostracism (or worse) and constraining our own minds are both protected by the First Amendment. They do not cross Constitutional lines. But they disrespect Constitutional values.

A second force is the willing use of lies and disinformation in political debate. Too often such debate leads the citizen to cast a vote without understanding the facts at issue and that can betray his true interests. While those who lie may congratulate themselves on their cleverness in swaying voters to their side, they have instead effectively disenfranchised them.

Political and religious freedom and freedom of thought belong to everyone - and enjoin responsibility on everyone. That responsibility includes protecting these freedoms for others with whom we disagree. It's ironic that many of those who shout most loudly about the importance of honoring the Constitution and its guarantees of these three freedoms are also those most willing to restrict those freedoms when others seek to practice them.

The antidote against these threatened freedoms is diversity. While political, religious, and academic diversity may be infuriating for some to watch, they are the only sure guarantee that the mind will not again become dark. If the Founders could trust the future to such diversity, why can't we? "We are really another people," Thomas Paine also said in his letter to the Abbe Raynal, "and cannot again go back to ignorance and prejudice." Let us hope he was correct.