Religious Freedom: Were Thomas Jefferson and Shaker Ann Lee both right?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Religious Freedom
Page of Thomas Jefferson's Bible with extras in the margin

THOMAS JEFFERSON, remaking the Bible in his own image, cut up the New Testament and reassembled only the parts he liked into his version of the Bible. Curators at the Smithsonian display this page of the Bible to illustrate that, sometimes, Jefferson was working so fast that apparently he misplaced some clippings he wanted to paste into the new Bible he was making. When he realized the left-over clippings, he would simply paste them down in the Bible’s margins.

First, think about the weather: Does today’s weather tell us anything about climate change? If we’re going through an especially bitter cold snap, some Americans inevitably talk about how climate change must be a myth. We often read long-term trends into contemporary events.

One such contemporary event is the proliferation of religious freedom restoration acts, often called simply RFRAs—and the backlash against them. Does today’s “weather” (RFRAs) tell us about long-term “climate” of values in America’s history?

Consider this except from Duncan Newcomer’s forthcoming book, Quiet Fire: The Spiritual Life of Abraham Lincoln: “In 1776 Mother Ann Lee brought her Shakers, the shaking Quakers, to America. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson edited, with scissors, his rational version of the New Testament. He also predicted that the new America would become dominantly Unitarian, the least ‘religious’ of the faiths he knew. While neither of their two disparate visions—very religious vs. almost secular—has dominated American society, each represents one side of a great and ongoing debate: the tension between the values of a religious society and a secular society.”

Newcomer, a Lincoln scholar and keen observer of American culture, argues that there was a tension between secular and spiritual values from the very start.

Lincoln held both secular and spiritual values. The Great Emancipator was, Newcomer writes, “American in both his secular faith in reason, and the people, as well as his Biblical religious values.”

The perennial tension (and occasional conflict) of secular and spiritual values is revealed, once again, in the contemporary clash over religious freedom acts like those in Indiana and Arkansas.

Do you, personally, experience a tension between spiritual and secular values?
Do you agree—or disagree—that today’s conflict about religious freedom and restoration acts is just the latest manifestation of the age-old tension between spiritual and secular values?

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