How a Christian Congress embraced Jefferson’s ‘atheistical’ library

Feb 2, 2015


By Peter Manseau

As the 114th Congress convened for the first time earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a report noting that it was the most ethnically diverse in history: 17 percent of the House and Senate is now nonwhite. But another Pew report found that by a different metric, Congress is almost shockingly united. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are overwhelmingly Christian, with more than 90 percent of each belonging to a church.

In these rancorous days, it’s tempting to look for a glimmer of hope in the possibility that so many lawmakers might have at least one thing in common. Yet in their near uniformity of belief, members of Congress do not reflect the current composition of a nation in which one in five claim no religious affiliation. To be sure, there is great variety among those who call themselves Christians, but it is nonetheless worrisome to some that so many share the tenets of a single faith: a hint that the broader and more varied concerns of the American public are incompletely represented by our elected officials.

The Pew report on religion, however, came not only at the start of a new legislative session, but during a month that marks the 200th anniversary of the most colorful debate on the value of diverse religious opinions ever heard in the US Legislature—and the outcome of that debate should be reassuring to doubters. The occasion was a House vote on a bill allowing Congress to procure Thomas Jefferson’s library at Monticello as a replacement for the original collection destroyed when the British burned Washington in the waning days of the War of 1812.

This tense moment in 1815 is a reminder that, as a country, we have been far more spiritually diverse than we often recognize. It also sheds light on the ways the United States has been able to generate great and broad-based institutions even when those in charge are, on the face of it, more similar than the citizens they represent. Ultimately, what happened would establish our expansive modern Library of Congress—and offer an example worth remembering amid the apparent religious uniformity of our elected federal government today.

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