(This opinion by Chris Edwards and Robin McNallie is in response to a request for members’ feedback from Bernie Mathes, our delegate to the Jefferson District meeting May 1):
If our UU district drops Thomas Jefferson’s name, we will put ourselves in the company of those on the Texas Board of Education who plan to downsize his place in that state’s school curriculum! Late-night comedians may have fun with that, but we think it’s a bad idea.
TJ was a complicated, flawed figure who shared in the evils of his time and place (owning slaves, though opposing slavery). History is filled with complicated and flawed people (like, maybe, all of us) — and that includes those who make outstanding contributions to humankind. Such as Jefferson.
If for nothing else, he deserves to be honored by UU’s for his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (for its text, see http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/jefferson_vsrf.html).
A post by the American Humanist Association reads, “The Virginia statute was nothing more or less than the statutory precursor to the guarantee of religious freedom contained in the First Amendment to our federal Constitution. Noted historian Henry Steele Commager called the Virginia statute “probably the most famous single document in the history of religious freedom in America.”
This freedom is enshrined in Unitarian Universalist principles and especially needs our support and promotion now, with the rise of theocracy movements in our country and the world.
In Texas, ironically, the NY Times reports that the education board plans “to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term ‘separation between church and state.’)”
Is this company we want to keep?
Better choices might include our District adopting a hyphenated name, pairing Jefferson with an inspiring leader of color. Or, how about considering approaches to reconciling our nation’s polarized communities? We could check out the “Coming to the Table” movement, which has brought together descendants of slaves and slave-owners, starting with the Jefferson and Hemings families, to promote understanding and dialogue (and has a base in Harrisonburg): see http://www.comingtothetable.org/about/history/. The UU community certainly needs to become more multicultural (as UU World articles have called for). Let’s look for positive, meaningful ways.
Chris and Robin