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Sectarian Extremists Versus Jefferson | The Nation

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Sectarian Extremists Versus Jefferson

Sectarian extremists invaded the U.S. Senate chamber Thursday, chanting "There's only one true God" and denouncing religious pluralism as an "abomination."

The noisy assault on American values and traditions unfolded as the Senate was opening with its daily prayer.

Rajan Zed, the director of interfaith relations at a Hindu temple in Nevada, began his brief invocation with the words, "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds."

As he spoke two women and a man in the Senate gallery attempted to shout him down.

Even as Capitol police removed the trio from the gallery, they continued to taunt the first Hindu cleric to open a session of the Senate. One of the zealots shouted "we are Christians and patriots."

Some leading conservative religious figures hailed the interruption, including Pastor Wiley Drake, a former 2nd Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said, "When not one of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate would object on the record, and in proper order, the opening of the U.S. Senate July 12, 2007, Christian observers had no choice but to speak from the gallery of the Senate. Had I been present I too would have stood and objected since none of the Senators would."

The three individuals who did object udentified themselves as members of Operation Save America/Operation Rescue, a militant anti-abortion rights group, which issued a statement denouncing the Senate's show of respect for religious diverity.

"The Senate was opened with a Hindu prayer placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the one true god, Jesus Christ," it declared. "This would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers."

On this point, the protesters are wrong.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the concept that the United States should maintain a "wall of separation" in order to avoid the development of a state religion of the sort that had existed in the monarchies of Europe, was a student Hinduism. His library included Hindu texts, and when he wrote the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, which laid the groundwork for the Constitution protection of religious practice and pluralism, he specifically avoided making reference to the Christian faith -- though its adherents dominated the public life of Virginia and other colonies -- because he wanted it to be known that all religions, including Hinduism, were respected and welcomed in the United States.

In his notes on the Virginia statute, Jefferson specifically argued that Hinduism and other faiths would be afforded the full protection and privileges of the act.

Noting the overwhelming rejection by Virginia legislators of an amendment to his statute that proposed to insert a reference to Jesus Christ, Jefferson found "proof that they (the legislators who enacted the measure) meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindoo and the (non-practicing and disbelieving) infidel of every denomination."

Jefferson's respect for religious pluralism in general, and Hinduism in particular, led him to compare notes with other founders of the American experiment. The third president and his predecessor, John Adams corresponded at some length about their respect for the teachings of the Hindu religion.

It was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who invited Rajan Zed do the chamber Thursday. But he did so in the name of Jefferson, Adams and the other founders who believed that America should make no religion supreme but rather should recognize and respect many faiths -- including Hinduism.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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