Of Jefferson, Franklin and the Republic--if we can keep it. (Viewpoint).
"Whoever could have thought it would come to this?" says the one with the ink-stained fingers (such things are badges of honor in heaven). "Who would have thought it would become so ... big?"
"Who indeed," says the other, sighing with a contentment that has more of earth than of heaven in it. "My dear Thomas, do you ever contemplate how fortunate we were? Our poor old friend Plato could only write about his Republic...."
"And a good thing too," whispers the one called Thomas, for a Virginia gentleman does not speak such things loudly. "A more sterile and dull place one could not imagine."
"... While we--we were given the chance to bring ours into being. I remember well that someone asked me what we had made, and that I replied, 'A Republic--if you can keep it.' And so far, indeed, they have kept it."
"By luck and miracle," says the one called Thomas. "They still have no idea--no idea at all--of what they have, and sometimes they seem determined to rid themselves of it. Do you see that man there? He has no concept of what has been given to him. He has just declared publicly that God has called him to go into the very halls of Congress--his words, Benjamin, 'the very halls of Congress'--in order to make his own morality the law of the land."
"Though of course he does not say that--he says it is God's morality," murmurs Benjamin. "It has always been so."
"As indeed it has," replies Thomas. "The Pilgrims came from England so they might worship as they pleased, and what was the first thing they did? They made laws banning all other religions. 'Tis human nature, it seems, to believe religion must be regulated by the state."
"Yet we wrote it another way, didn't we, Thomas."
"And still they do not understand, Benjamin. How could we have been plainer? Did we need to spell it out word by word, saying 'You can believe in God in any way you choose, or in no god at all. You can call God by any name you like, and you may worship in any way you like, so long as you harm none. You may sing or chant or dance or sit in silence, you may even roll on the floor and handle snakes. You may speak or write your beliefs without fear, and you may persuade anyone you can to come and believe with you.
"The only thing you cannot do is use the law to force your beliefs on those who do not share them. What could be simpler?"
"Yet we were roundly criticized, Thomas, as well you know, and many said it would never work. But look you there."
"I am looking, Benjamin, and with some astonishment. What on the green and blessed earth are those people doing?"
"They call themselves Wiccans, and they are worshiping God--or in this case the Goddess--in the way that seems good to them."
"It seems that things have become complex since our day," says Thomas.
"In our time, most Americans were Puritans or Anglicans, a few Roman Catholics, a small smattering of Jews...."
"And yonder," Benjamin goes on, "is a Jewish woman making ready for her family's Passover. While the Christians are observing the season of Lent, the Muslims have finished their celebration of the Hijra and are looking forward to the anniversary of the birth of Muhammad. The followers of Shinto have ritually purified their shrines and honored their ancestors. The Buddhists have just welcomed their New Year, and at this very moment a Navajo shaman is singing a healing chant for an old woman.
"And how good it is--how good it is! There is not a catacomb nor a priest's hole in all the land, not a burning court nor a pogrom nor an inquisition, nor one small, fearful group whispering prayers behind a locked door...."
"Yet there are still some," says Benjamin, "who would like to see these things return--all in the name of God." "It has always been so. For them we wrote the Amendments."
"But still, Thomas, why can they not understand? When you take a freedom from one, you will find that, in the turning of fortune, you have taken it from yourself as well."
"Some are incapable of such imaginings, Benjamin. But, by God's grace we have given even them a Republic."
"If they can keep it."
The Rev. Anne McConney of Omaha, Neb., is a columnist for Episcopal Life, where this article first appeared. Reprinted with permission.
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|Publication:||Church & State|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2003|
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