God's Politics

The new majority Democratic Congress is the most diverse in American history – comprising more women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians than any previous body. It is also the most religiously diverse, including two Buddhists, a Muslim, and the highest number ever of Jews (43), Roman Catholics (154), non-denominational Protestants (26), and “unaffiliated” (6). Mormons, at fifteen members, fell one short of their all-time high of sixteen.

Last spring, before this diverse membership was elected, Rep. Nancy Pelosi commented, “The more the tables of power reflect the beautiful diversity of our country, the sooner our policies will reflect the aspirations of the American people.” In this speech, Pelosi echoed the vision of America first set forth by her party’s founder, and the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. In a very real way, this Congress embodies the Jeffersonian dream.

Of this new diversity, no member has stirred more comment than incoming Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the lone Muslim member who requested to be sworn in (in his private ceremony) on the Koran rather than a Bible. Attacking Ellison became a cause celebre among conservatives – and conservative Christians – when Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) launched a neo-nativist tirade against Islam and immigration, warning that real Americans must close their borders to Muslims.

Mr. Ellison, an African-American Muslim convert who traces his family roots in the United States to 1741, has responded in a most unexpected way. He asked the Library of Congress if he might borrow a special copy of the Koran from their collection, a book owned by Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Koran dates from the mid- 18th century, having survived a fire that destroyed much of his library, and contains marginalia in Jefferson’s handwriting. On that special book, Mr. Ellison will take his oath of office.

Thomas Jefferson championed religious diversity and the separation of church and state. In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (passed 1786) guaranteeing full civil liberties to Virginians (white male ones, as was the custom of the day) regardless of religious views, “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The Virginia Statute served as the foundation of the religion clauses in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

In recent years, some Religious Right partisans have attacked Jefferson and his views on church and state. They argue that Jefferson never imagined the expansive form of religious diversity in America today. Thus, Jefferson only intended religious freedom for a broad Christian spectrum (and perhaps Jews).

Jefferson anticipated such charges in his autobiography, stating that religious liberty was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and the Mohometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination.”

Some would reply that Jefferson held such views because he was not an orthodox Christian and faced charges of being an “infidel” in his own day. But where did Jefferson get these ideas? He got them from John Locke, the English Christian political philosopher. In 1689, a century before Jefferson, Locke made a case for complete religious freedom for “Pagans, Moslems, and Jews,” as “none ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” He continued, “The Gospel commands no such thing.”

“The Gospel commands no such thing.” Locke based his argument for religious freedom (including Muslims, non-believers, and Jews) on Christian principles. His Letter Concerning Toleration begins with an elegant call to love. Christianity consists of, as Locke wrote, “charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind.” The love of Jesus Christ thus served as the starting place for his political vision of the Christian state: full civil rights for all in a religiously diverse society.

Hope for diversity is not some sort of secular affirmative action. Religious diversity, as a principle for the body politic, is, in significant measure, a Christian vision, born in a hope for a nation that may enact the inclusive love of God. Religious diversity is brought to its fullest expression in American political theology – and a vision increasingly modeled throughout our society and shared by other religious Americans. When Rep. Ellison lays his hand on Jefferson’s Koran, it will be a proud moment for American Muslims. But it will a prouder moment for Christians, for Mr. Ellison’s action is a visible sign of what has long been promised in the best of America’s theological tradition.

One small point of theological irony: Rep. Goode, the one who attacked Rep. Ellison’s request as somehow un-American, and by implication, un-Christian, represents the Virginia district that includes Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.

Diana Butler BassDiana Butler Bass ( is a Red Letter Christian the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us, recently published by Harper San Francisco. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia and is an Episcopalian, the denomination of which Thomas Jefferson was a member, and that celebrates its 400th year in America in 2007.

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