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Antje Duvekot

Processing Our Parents (and Thomas Jefferson)

Lately I've been thinking about my parents. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson. I'll explain soon... I have been unraveling my parents (my mom and my stepdad to be more exact) for many years now and I've come to understand the ways in which I've become who I am because of and in spite of them. But i guess when it comes to revelations, there's always a few stragglers.

Our parents get first dibs at imbuing us with a world view and I would posit that most children adopt their parents' value systems hook, line and sinker and only dissect them for themselves once they grow older, if ever. Problem is: by the time this 'review' happens, the vast values that our parents installed on our childhood hard drives are wide-spread and almost intrinsic to us so that it can be difficult to discern the gems from the rubbish when sifting through them all. We don't want to throw away the wrong things. So we take our time. And so it has come to pass that I just found another piece of rubbish in there, just the other day.....

It's got to do with Thomas Jefferson. While hauling out whole freighters worth of my parents ideas as I grew older, I always retained the high esteem they held for Thomas Jefferson. This is because I've broadly retained my parents' atheist views and Thomas Jefferson - having coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" - is a hero among atheists. But this summer, I delved deeper into revolutionary history and got to know the real person of Jefferson instead of the atheist hero and  turns out - he's really flawed.

Consistently, Jefferson let his ideals blind him to reality. In his ongoing belief that the French Revolution was righteous, he overlooked its violence and bloodshed. He idealized all things French and despised all things British. He was also an ideologue when it came to domestic politics. When his long time friend John Adams became president and extended an olive branch to Jefferson, then VP, suggesting that the two work together across party lines, Jefferson myopically declined. Worse still, he did so at James Madison's urging instead of his own. He was also a hypocrite. It was Jefferson who said "if i could go to heaven but with a party, i would not go at all". But it was Jefferson who greatly contributed to the development of a bi-partisan system. On a personal level, Jefferson was down-right sneaky. It has been shown that he was personally behind a lot of the libel and slander in the press aimed at his good friends George Washington and John Adams. He denied this, however. He was also incapable of managing his finances and was deeply in debt and living beyond his means at Monticello.
And then there's the slaves...

What's my point? Of course, most people are flawed. That Jefferson was too is not my revelation. Rather it's how, in effect, hypocritical the beliefs of my parents were. As champions of the critical process they, nonetheless, fell for icons. They fervently worshiped Jefferson and co-opted him for their cause. Their cause was anti-religionism. Painfully arrogant toward what they considered the "feeble-minded Christians" and the "silliness of blind faith'', they actually displayed the same unthinking dogmatism of those they so derided. They willfully choose pieces of the truth that suited them and ignored others. They believed religion was at the root of all evil. For proof, they cited the inquisition and other religious wars (but overlooked atrocities that have been ably committed by non-religious regimes such as Hitler's and Stalin's). They dehumanized people of faith with an intolerance that rivaled the religious extremists. They fought churches by getting them to remove church signs that were too close to the road. They threw bibles in the trash. But Thomas Jefferson (and Thomas Paine) could do no wrong.

I believe that I've purged most of my parents' intolerance's from my world view. But odds and ends always remain, I suppose, and so the myth of Thomas Jefferson has survived in me. Jefferson's "separation of church and state" was our holy atheist mantra. My parents and I thought we had the right not to be exposed to any religious references in government or public life. But in re-reading Jefferson's letters, I'm not so sure now that that's what Jefferson even meant. And, anyway, it doesn't matter since the 'separation of church and state' -clause is not part of the constitution. 'Freedom of religion' is. And so I've come to believe, in retrospect, that if a U.S. president wants to express his faith during his inauguration, for example, he has that right.* My parents waged warfare against public religious expression. Thomas Jefferson and the 'separation of church and state' comprised their battle cry. I am starting to think, however, that there are better ways to gain acceptance for ourselves as atheists. I don't want to draw battle lines over beliefs as my parents did. I wish to be a constructive being on this earth and work with other constructive beings, no matter their beliefs. So I'm letting go of yet another inherited remnant of rubbish thinking... sorry, TJ! Ya still wrote a lovely independence declaration!

*I might be outright contradicting myself vis-a-vis an earlier blog i wrote. Deal with it.