Alan Reinach

There were three things Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for, three things he wanted on his tombstone: being President of the United States was not one of them. Drafting the Declaration of Independence was one, so was authoring the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. But the third proudest achievement of his life was not his library or his beloved Monticello—it was founding the University of Virginia, an academic institution that has become one of the very finest in the world.

According to the historians at Monticello, despite his economic dependence on slaveholding, Jefferson was a public opponent of slavery throughout his life. He called it a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot.”

One can readily imagine that, were Jefferson alive last year, he would have been horrified at the goings on when a protester was killed for daring to stand up and object to white supremacists marching through the streets of his college town, carrying guns and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

When he penned the words “all men are created equal,” Jefferson understood just how revolutionary an act this was. He also understood that it would take future generations to flesh out the meaning of this principle and to fully realize the promise of equality. Clearly, the promise remains elusive.

Today it is well for us to look back, not just a year ago to Charlottesville but two centuries or more, to what Jefferson declared to be the principle our nation was founded on, and, dare I suggest, the principle that would make America truly great.

Jefferson did not have much room in his life for a transcendent God. But he was quick to invoke the deity in support of his beloved concept of human rights, inalienable God-given rights. And if God gave rights to you and me, He also gave them to the other person. Whatever our political or religious differences, if we want to restore our national greatness, we must begin by relearning the lesson of a simple song we teach our toddlers in church: “Red and yellow black and white, all are precious in His sight.” And if they are all precious in God’s sight, they must be precious in our sight, as well. I know it is politically incorrect to refer to people in such terms. But the point is well taken: it is time to stop being afraid of one another, stop being afraid of people who are different, stop being afraid of the other. Fear is the fuel of fascism, the fuel of oppression, the fuel of war and violence and persecution. Let’s choke off the oxygen of intolerance by learning to reject fear.

Alan Reinach is executive director of the Church State Council, the religious liberty educational and advocacy arm of the Pacific Union Conference. He is a member of both the New York and California state bar associations.