The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Religious Fundamentalism vs. Democracy

Whether Christian, Islamic, or of any other denomination, religious fundamentalism is by its very nature in opposition to democracy and a free society. This opposition may or may not be overt, depending on the type of society in which it exists. In the United States, for example, opposition to democracy is well-disguised. In some of the countries of the Middle East, it is quite obvious. But everywhere, it is evident that the spirit of religious fundamentalism is opposed to those freedoms that are characteristic of a democratic society.

Fundamentalists often participate in the democratic process in pursuit of their own ends, but their ultimate goal when they enter the political arena is the elimination from power and influence of other political interests in opposition to their own. This is because the primary purpose of fundamentalism is not the establishment of democracy--the rule of the people--but rather the establishment of fundamentalism's own set of religious values. Fundamentalism seeks, not ordinary civil rights for those being deprived of them, but rather its own agenda of moral and religious requirements which it wishes to impose on all citizens; and for this reason it becomes, in fact, an enemy of civil liberties. In these respects, it has not changed over the past two hundred years since Jefferson described the political intentions of certain members of the clergy in his day.

Religious fundamentalism cannot support those political institutions of a society which tolerate what it perceives to be error. Rather, fundamentalism's only interest in engaging in politics is the predominance of its own religious views. The presence of opposing views is anathema to those who are convinced that their's is "the only true faith." The sentiment expressed by Jefferson,

is incomprehensible to fundamentalist ideologues who are convinced of the rightness of their views and feel that the tolerance of error would be equivalent to placing a seal of approval upon it. This kind of intolerance is not confined to religion, of course. It is all too familiar in politics and in certain philosophical schools as well. But a free society is not obtained by subjecting the people to the dominance of any specific kind of opinion, whether religious or otherwise. A rigid imposition of dogmatic views on a whole population, whether it be communism, Nazism or religious fundamentalism, has always been a way of keeping a whole people under oppression.

The advancement of the human spirit can only occur in a state of freedom and in a society where the mind of man is free from tyrannous control. Religious fundamentalism, in contrast, is founded on unchangeable dogma established, usually, in the far distant past. Unlike a free society, which flourishes with the advancement of knowledge, religion, when it interferes in the political process, always hearkens back to a previous age. Its fixed ideas and ideologies become the enemy of progress.

The government of a free society finds that differences of opinion and the progress that emerges from the free marketplace of ideas are its source of vitality and are indispensable for a healthy and progressive nation.

It was to the establishment of this state of freedom that Jefferson devoted all his energies.

The very principle of this new nation which Jefferson helped found relied on a people free to think for themselves and to employ their powers of reason in making the decisions that affect their own lives.

The Fundamentalists, however, have no interest in the establishment of a democratic process that will be free of their or anyone else's control. The idea that a government should be guided by the will of the people, not by the doctrines of some belief system that wishes to dominate and direct the people, enters not into their strategy. The principle that,

enters not into their philosophy, for they care not a fig for promoting the expression of the "will of the people." Their interest is in subjecting that will to their fundamentalist doctrines, in having the whole society guided by the principles which their faith considers essential. They participate in the democratic process, not because they believe in that process, or that they wish to promote self-government for their people and to see it well-established; they participate because the democratic process is a means to their end for seizing power and imposing their will. Hence the phrase, often spoken in countries that religious fundamentalists seek to dominate, "One man, one vote, one time." And upon seizing power through the democratic process, their next step is to make sure that the opposition finds no opportunity to seize power from them. The fruits of such intolerance and oppression are never, however, peace and prosperity. Religious intolerance translated into political intolerance sows the seeds of endless enmity and violence.

If a free society is to exist in which people of differing opinions, religious or otherwise, live in peace and security, it cannot be done under the leadership of religious fundamentalism.

It should be made clear that not all religious influence is detrimental to democracy. We are here speaking of Religious Fundamentalism, a form of dogmatic fanaticism that seeks to inject its teachings and beliefs into the life of a nation, not just through teaching and preaching, but through a manipulation of the political process and by having its precepts, beliefs and practices incorporated into the laws of the land. Moreover, the above description applies especially to the religious fundamentalism we see in places like the Middle East. That in America is of a much milder variety. Yet the essential nature, the preeminence given to religious dogma over democratic principle, can be detected here also.

The Civil Rights movement of the 60's was led by black religious leaders who often injected a religious tone into their message. But their attempts to influence the political process had one outstanding difference: their efforts were directed, not at compelling the rest of society to adopt measures derived from religious dogma, but at winning for their own people the same civil rights enjoyed by everyone else! Hence, their ends were entirely secular. There is nothing "religious" about the right to vote, the right to sit anywhere on a bus or to eat at a lunch-counter. Only their means and their fervor were inspired by their religious commitment. In this respect, they were no different than our Founding Fathers, who were also very religious men, and who often spoke using religious references and metaphors. Jefferson pointed out that those areas where religious influence rightly affects general society are areas in which all religions agree. Those aspects of religious dogma which differentiate the various religions from one another are the very areas that should be excluded from civil society.

    "Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809.

If religion has no proper role in influencing the political process with its dogmatic beliefs, it certainly has a role in society itself along side, yet not part of, our political institutions.

    "I consider ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Augustus B. Woodward, 1824.

Thus, all religions have much to contribute to society, but none of them have a rightful role directly interfering in the political process to promote the tenets and practices of a particular denomination.

    The Freedom of the Mind

Man was created with a mind that is naturally free, and it is inconsistent with creation to attempt to impose any kind of belief or practice upon mankind through the authority of government.

    "Almighty God has created the mind free and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint... All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion who, being Lord of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone." --Thomas Jefferson: Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1779.

When the appeal is to reason, it is to be expected that the result will be a vast difference of opinion, as one person's reasoning reaches different conclusions from another's. And this, in turn, requires that individuals be tolerant of one another, not demanding that their own conclusions prevail over those of others.

    "That differences of opinion should arise among men on politics, on religion and on every other topic of human inquiry, and that these should be freely expressed in a country where all our faculties are free is to be expected. But these valuable privileges are much perverted when permitted to disturb the harmony of social intercourse and to lessen the tolerance of opinion." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Citizens of Washington, 1809.

The result of this tolerance will inevitably be a lack of uniformity. But acceptance of these differences and of a lack of uniformity in belief are the very essence of tolerance. This, indeed, is the way that the Creator made us.

    "The varieties in the structure and action of the human mind, as in those of the body, are the work of our Creator against which it cannot be a religious duty to erect the standard of uniformity." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809.

Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, demands uniformity and acceptance of religious precepts without compromise. Although a free society can accommodate them, they inevitably find themselves at odds with the objectives of a free society. And when they enter the political arena and seek to impose their precepts on everyone else, conflict ensues as the minds of free people rebel against this encroachment upon their freedom.

    Education, The Proper Way to Convince Others

The proper role for all those who would influence society's government, whatever their ideas, is to do so through the education of the people, through an influence acting on the reason of man, and not through wresting political power away from the people and compelling them to adhere to those ideas. If a free people are to experience an improvement in their condition, this is the only way it can be effected.

    "Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

Restricting the free flow of information in order to force people in general to conform with the beliefs of one segment of society is completely incompatible with the dynamics of a free society.

    "Those who question what [a bookseller] may sell or we may buy... each wishes [that the code of dogmas of their own religion] should domineer over the opinions of all others and be taken... under the 'protection of wise and just laws.' It [shows] to what they wish to reduce the liberty for which one generation has sacrificed life and happiness. It would present our boasted freedom of religion as a thing of theory only, and not of practice." --Thomas Jefferson to N. G. Dufief, 1814.

Educating the people so that they will make informed choices when they go to the polls is the proper method for effecting change.

    "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.

In a free society such as our own, the religious right discovers that it may, through subterfuge, trickery and deceit, seize political power. But when the deception is exposed, the people generally respond by throwing the deceivers out of office. This is possible, of course, because our democratic processes are well-established by laws under a written Constitution. In some other societies, especially those operating under the Parliamentary System, such a seizure of power is more difficult to throw off and usually results in an extremely oppressive government. But people everywhere have come to recognize what it means to be free, and are finding the will to struggle for that freedom against all forms of tyranny.

    "Nations hitherto in slavery have desired... a glimmering of their own rights, have dared to open their eyes and to see that their own power will suffice for their emancipation. Their tyrants must now give them more moderate forms of government, and they seem now sensible of this themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to William Bentley, 1815.

It was Jefferson's conviction that these attempts to force religious belief and practice through the political process were not a necessary part of religion, least of all of the Christian religion.

    "The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of it's benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind." --Thomas Jefferson to Moses Robinson, 1801.

Religion in a free society need not produce conflict. It is only the intolerant elements of religion, the fanatical adherents of dogma who attempt to spread their teachings through the political process, that create conflict and turmoil. Good religion and civil liberty are perfectly compatible.

    Can Religious People Occupy Public Office?

Fundamentalists object that this view of the political process would exclude them from holding any public office. It would attempt to silence their First Amendment right to speak out on issues that concern themselves. Secularists, they assert, make it sound like a person is unfit to run for office by the very fact that the person is a member in good standing of a church.

This is not so, of course. The difference lies in the attitude the religious person holds toward his or her political duties. As John F. Kennedy said, when this question was raised about his Catholic faith and his duties if elected President:

    "As a religious person, I am influenced in my moral attitudes by my religion, and this will affect my behavior as president. But I will in no way seek to use the powers of the state to force my religious and moral convictions upon people who do not share them."

And therein lies the essential difference. Of course! We would hope that every person we elect to public office would act under the influence of their moral attitudes and beliefs. One of the more important elements that enter into this choice is the public character and performance of the candidate. But this does not mean that an elected official should attempt to force his or her private religious convictions on others. When we see persons of a particular religious faith seeking public office on a certain platform couched in general moral terms, and then, upon being elected, trying to push through measures that promote religious practices because they believe those practices will produce the moral results, we are compelled to believe that those persons have a hidden agenda and have not been honest and forthright with the voting public. And this is the only thing that is really needed, the thing we have every right to demand: an honesty in a candidate's approach with a full disclosure of their intent, so that voters know what they are getting, and get what they voted for.

    "The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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