Nones Bible: Chapter Seven

The Nones Bible

Chapter Seven

“A Mantle of Protection for Beliefs”

There are biblical stories of protective cloaks, robes or mantles that may be familiar to many readers (Elijah, Ruth, Jesus). One commentary describes these garments as “wrap around” clothing often worn by wanderers, strangers and the poor. A mantle was protective covering even used for sleeping (which makes me think of the Scottish kilt).

In our time, we may compare capes, shawls or serapes—even cozy blankets or rain ponchos. There’s something very comforting about being surrounded with protective warmth to shield us from the cold or wet.

This image of the mantle got me thinking about great thinkers who considered protections for all of us when it comes to our beliefs or non beliefs. This may sound like “just politics” but it seems to me to be “just freedom”—a central teaching of all religions as well as secular philosophies.

Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello we were impressed by the architecture, the land and the gravesite. Of course, we were also saddened as we imagined all the slaves tending the grounds, gardens and household. It stuns the senses and common sense to think such a great mind, devoted to freedom, could be so blind to his own human property.

Jefferson’s gravestone is carved with the two accomplishments he was the most proud of: “Author of the Declaration of Independence” and of the “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.” When he and fellow president John Adams both died on July 4, 1826 they were remembered for revolutionary acts as well as some fairly revolutionary ideas.

One of the most influential ideas the Founders left in the documents they handed on to us was the idea that in America citizens were free to choose whatever religious beliefs they desired, or choose no religious beliefs at all. Quite a radical concept.

Near the end of his life, Jefferson commented on those who wanted to craft “religious freedom” laws to primarily protect one faith, their faith:

“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right … its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read ‘departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’ the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and [Muslim], the [Hindu], and infidel of every denomination.” (Autobiography Draft Fragment, July 27, 1821).

When one religion attempts to assert its supremacy, “reason and right” must step in to correct and balance. As Jefferson saw it (ultimately joined by the rest of those who decided America would be different than other nations ruled by one faith), the “mantle of protection” included a variety of faiths as well as “infidels”—freethinkers with unorthodox opinions.

At Monticello I took photos of the house, as everyone does. I also captured images of a beautiful yellow and black spider in its garden web, a stick bug in a bush and a bright blue butterfly (we travel for nature as well as history). Then I saw one tree with inter-laced roots protruding through the grass (see header image). That image seemed the best one to illustrate what I was feeling on that historic ground: this is Our ground, all of us, with faith and without faith, any party or none. Like the threads of a well-worn cloak or mantle, or the veins in our skin, we are held together, rooted to freedom—the tree stands and shelters.

Does this sound like politics or religion? Isn’t it really about people, the human community? The mantle is for all of us, even when we don’t want “those people” under the same spreading tree or mantle of protection.

Though it might be fun, we don’t need an “invisibility cloak” as in Harry Potter, or any magic at all. Jefferson’s mantle is a “wrap around” to make everyone visible, not invisible. The Founders’ philosophy was concerned with protecting the rights, the freedom of conscience, of each person by acknowledging the differences and letting them be. There would be plenty of disagreement and debate under this mantle, but that makes the threads and roots stronger.

And what about those “infidels”? Jefferson himself was accused of being one though he called himself a Christian at times—as well as a Deist and Unitarian. The best guardians of the mantle may be those infidels—not beholden to any one sect.

It’s good to know the mantle is owned by no one … and everyone.

Chris Highland

Categories: HistoryTags: , , ,

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