(Originally published in 'Charlatan Magazine', 2013)
I believe Thomas Jefferson would be in hot demand these days on the lecture circuit. He would be the guest of honor at Sunday morning talk shows and political debates and college roundtables. His written prose and verbal stylings could quickly enumerate his points, confound his antagonists, and make more confident both his allies and general supporters. I imagine Mr. Jefferson reading from his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, telling them that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”
Are we to interpret that as meaning a true separation of church and state relies on the secular actions of government, while not being counseled by the opinions of the religion of the land? Or does it mean something else? And which is ultimately more important? Man or his God? I don’t know.
What I do know is that in 1947 the Institute for Sex Research was founded at Indiana University, no doubt a delicious piece of dinner party trivia one unleashes during a lull in the conversation. Headed by Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer in the field of true sexuality research, observation and education, the Institute allowed those in America who were willing to go against the crushing social pressures of the day, and uncloak the scandalous stigmas surrounding sex and sexuality to a point some found dangerous, sacrilegious, and morally contemptible – no matter what it was they were actually doing behind closed doors.
As part of his research, Kinsey developed the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale – oft plainly referred to as the Kinsey Scale. Along its axis, it is theorized that every man and woman on the planet falls between 0 and 6; 0 being exclusively heterosexual, and 6 being exclusively homosexual. Kinsey, himself, argued that with respect to males specifically, “the world is not divided into sheep and goats,” and that there are certain varying levels of attraction to the same sex, landing them somewhere between 1 and 5. Wikipedia tells us that there have been variations on a theme, and that some scales use a wider variance, sliding between 0 and 10. Were Kinsey alive today, would he also be so inclined to research, observe and educate on the sliding scale of religion and secularism, and their effect felt here and abroad? Would he also have developed such a scale for us to self-identify in terms of extreme piety and the belief in nothing? It certainly begs the question.
160 years before a sex researcher would subtly divide the human population on a scale with which few would publicly identify for fear of labeling themselves (or outing themselves) the Preamble of our Constitution was written, in part by Mr. Jefferson, et al, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It is, to this day, one of the most beautiful sentences to have been drafted. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.” Wow.
If the Founding Fathers could have foreseen The Year of Our Lord, 2013, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Adams might have been tempted to ask for a rewrite. For surely they would be asking themselves what went so horribly wrong with their design? What happened to the union? Where did all of this hate come from? And why is everybody so angry with everybody who isn’t like them? Is this what they were attempting to install? Is anything different? Have we, in 226 years, not grown above division?
By the time James Madison got around to writing the Bill of Rights in 1791, significant arguments had been made for the establishment of a limited government; one in which the citizens governed each other. They had already made strides toward forming a more perfect union, a republic where the power is held by the people and their will is carried out by those they elect to office. Determined to be utterly free of religious persecution and willing to die for that freedom among so many others, the very first line in the very first amendment states unequivocally that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
But if that’s true - if it’s really, really true - how have we found ourselves in this position today?
Where has the commonality of freedom gone? Why must one identify with the conservatism of the right and vilify those whose views are passionately secular? And why must those who aren’t washed in the blood of their creator take such offense to that which is believed to be sacred and holy and for the everlasting benefit of mankind? Battles rage across the country and across the planet, hinging often times not on economics or territorial disputes, but on the sliding scale of morality and religion that has divided us for centuries. How has the oil and water relationship between religion and the state become so diluted in America as to allow this unyielding evisceration, what some would deem spitting in the face of the First Amendment? To what lengths will the secular fight back, and against whom do they seek to prevail?
North Carolina, Alabama, and Texas, and myriad other states are contemplating legislation written by the far right and funded by conservative corporations with big pockets and giant donations. It is argued by their opponents that no good can come from restricting rights of the individual whether it is in terms of their ability to marry or to obtain an abortion. We are not seeing the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, as more and more often the ear of the public’s representative is held either by the religious right, or someone who takes great benefit (more often financially and less often spiritually) from their religious affiliations. If the secular world were the holder of the purse strings and exactor of more dubious pressures, would things be completely different? Would there exist the freedom for anyone to do absolutely whatever they wanted? Would laws be enacted that punish those who are true believers, those who act in defiance of a secular plan so as to lift up the name and voice of their God? Or can there be a true common ground on which we can all stand? Is that such a crazy idea?
Christian or Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, atheist or agnostic, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, 0 to 6, 1 to 5, or somewhere in between, we all have a responsibility to the legacy of our Founding Fathers, and the adoption of a true republic. We must work hand in hand with our friends and enemies, alike, to fairly and passionately govern ourselves, and do our level best to ensure that the United States of America continues to be a more perfect union. So help me God. Or not.
Otherwise, what’s the point?