For those who miss the Dubya administration, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University is here to reimpose Texas values on us. Kidd’s invasion from the Lone Star State comes in the form of an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post, “McDonnell’s Jeffersonian decision on public prayer”.
The Texan writes in praise of McDonnell’s action allowing Virginia state police chaplains in public, state-sponsored ceremonies to invoke the name of Jesus Christ – in direct violation of a 2008 US Court of Appeals court order banning this practice. And Kidd has the nerve to make his case in the name of our favorite son, Thomas Jefferson. He writes:
The court’s ruling was an unwarranted intrusion into Americans’ religious freedom, and it certainly was not the kind of restriction that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he drafted Virginia’s Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), or even when he wrote of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Jefferson and the other Founders meant to keep the government out of religion’s business, not to drive specific, “sectarian” religion out of the public sphere.
Since conservatives believe religiously in the “Original Intent” of the Founders, the fact that Jefferson didn’t mention police chaplains in the Statute “proves”, I guess, that this wasn’t what he had in mind. While it is true, as Kidd writes, that Jefferson was trying to avoid having a state-funded and favored church, it is absurd to claim, as he does, that Jefferson thereby would have approved of all state-sponsored religious activity that falls short of such an establishment. And Kidd provides no evidence whatsoever to back up this claim.
The fact is, though, that you don’t have to dig too far into the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in order to find language that could be used to argue vigorously against McDonnell’s decision. In the preamble, the Statute talks of:
…the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others…
Sorry, but for a Jewish American like me, having my tax dollars pay for a state chaplain to ramble on about Jesus at a public ceremony is having someone else’s religion imposed on me – at my expense. And, as Jefferson continues, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” Amen, Brother TJ!
Kidd complains that avoiding sectarian religious references in public speech leads to a “kind of vacuous civil religion.” Yes, but this misses the point that we have the entirety of our private lives to add the color to whatever religious paths we choose to follow. The government is just an empty vessel to help establish a safe, healthy, open and free public space within which we have the opportunity to make a multitude of choices with others or on our own. Why do we need the state taking sides and choosing theological winners and losers?
The remarkable thing about the McDonnell/Cuccinelli Administration is how hard it is working to stick its nose in the places where government least belongs. While General Cooch tries to impose his climate change conspiracy theories on our academic community, Governor Bob works to impose evangelical Christianity on the rest of us. I can only respond by again quoting that great (not Texan but) Virginian:
Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. […] If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, Judges, and Governors, shall all become wolves.
Pay attention, Virginians, before these wolves gobble up any more of our freedoms.