Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
Thomas Jefferson was brilliant and essential, but he has never been my hero among the Founding Fathers. As such, it caught me off guard when I found myself deeply moved at the memorial that honors him in our capital. Even crowded by tourists, it feels a little set apart, a peaceful spot from which one can look out across the Tidal Basin and reflect on this city and nation of ours and on Jefferson’s words on freedom cut into the surrounding walls. Words that were true when first written, though not fully realized in law. Words that are true now, even if the laws should abandon them utterly.
Almighty God hath created the mind free.
Inscribed under the dome is Jefferson’s vow of “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He wrote this to Benjamin Rush in 1800, nearly a decade after the ratification of the 1st Amendment designed to protect against such tyranny. Even this master of words knew that — in the end — words on paper could not alone secure liberty. Such is human nature, and such is the power of ideas gone wrong.
If we had forgotten that, we are learning it now from this Supreme Court. We revere the Constitution, but its words alone will not protect our liberties. We can no longer win by proving what Madison or Jefferson said or meant. We should also have learned by now that this generation finds such appeals to authority utterly unpersuasive.
But that only means that we stand where Madison and Jefferson stood: we must make the case on its merits, not on their authority. So let us know them better. We need not merely their conclusions but their arguments, understood thoroughly enough to address them to the 21st century. Why should a hateful minority get to live out its offensive beliefs? What would we lose by restricting them? These questions have now been opened, and we can no longer speak of religious liberty as an assumed good.
We have no time to indulge in outrage. It is a time for clear thinking and a clear purpose.
Let’s not expect the presidential candidates to be the first to do that thinking and make that case. That’s not a criticism, that is the nature of politics. Almost unanimously last week, they promised — some sincerely — to defend religious liberty, but they spoke to those who already care. Scott Walker at least stated that it is a matter for all of us: “No one wants to live in a country where the government coerces people to act in opposition to their conscience.”
That is a beginning, but it leads to the question: why not? Why does that liberty matter to those who feel no need to exercise it? We need to answer those questions — convincingly — if we wish to defend our liberty.