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Bid to rename Thomas Jefferson District fails again

Motion to change UUA district’s name falls short by 3 votes.
By Jane Greer
5.24.10

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Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart, 1821

Thomas Jefferson. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1821 (detail) (National Gallery of Art)

In a vote pitting two aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy against each other, delegates at the annual meeting of the Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association earlier this month narrowly voted down a motion to drop Jefferson’s name.

Proponents of a name change argued that Jefferson should not be honored with the name of a UUA district because of his slave-owning and his views on race. Opponents of a name change argued that Jefferson’s contribution to American religious freedom and his role in establishing the separation of church and state outweighed the fact of his slave ownership.

The motion to change the name, which needed a two-thirds majority to win, fell three votes short of passing.

The Thomas Jefferson District comprises 62 congregations in the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

The district annual meeting, held in Beaufort, S.C., April 30–May 2, included two town meetings to discuss a name change and a final plenary session in which five speakers from each side were given two minutes to make their arguments. Seventy-three delegates (64 percent) voted to change the name and 41 (36 percent) favored keeping it. If the motion had passed, the annual meeting would have then discussed proposals for a new name.

This is the second time that a name change has been voted down. In 1997, the district rejected another attempt to change the name.

Pete Leary, a member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C., spoke against a name change. “I don’t think we’d have had a UU movement if it hadn’t been for Thomas Jefferson and his putting freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights,” he told UU World. “I was very disheartened by the pro-name-change folks tearing down Thomas Jefferson in order to change the name. I would have preferred only positive reasons for change; not negative ones directed against Jefferson.”

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which advocated freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. Although Jefferson never joined a Unitarian church, he did attend Unitarian services and corresponded on religious issues with numerous Unitarians, including John Adams. In an 1822 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse he wrote, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”

“I thought it was terrible that we’d be aligning ourselves with the Texas School Board in denigrating Jefferson,” Leary said, “and I could imagine the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs saying, ‘See, even they want to get rid of him.’” (The Texas School Board voted March 12, 2010, to change their social studies curriculum, cutting Jefferson from a list of figures who inspired eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutions and adding Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin instead.)

Phil Benson, a member of the UU Congregation of the Lowcountry in Bluffton, S.C., favored a name change because of Jefferson’s slave ownership. “It was Jefferson’s attitudes toward African Americans” that were troubling, he told UU World, “exemplified by his refusal to accept the fact that Phillis Wheatley was able to write the poetry that she did.” (Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1781, “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”)

“Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man,” Benson continued. “In my judgment, he could have or should have been able to resolve some of the issues of slavery in a much more humane way.”

Jefferson opposed slavery, although he kept slaves. In 1778, he proposed a bill banning the importation of slaves into Virginia, and as president in 1807 signed a bill abolishing the importation of more slaves. (Slavery remained legal, however, until the Thirteenth Amendment banned it in 1864.) Even though Jefferson was against the institution of slavery, he believed that blacks were not the equals of whites, writing in 1781, "The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life."

The Rev. Ed Piper, minister of the UU Fellowship of Waynesboro, Va., spoke at the plenary session on behalf of the name change. Piper was against the name change in 1997 but subsequently changed his mind.

“I believe the time has come to let go of Thomas Jefferson,” Piper said. “His opinions about race stand in sharp contrast to the racially diverse, multicultural society that he believed was impossible. . . . He was indeed a ‘man of his times,’ and for this we can forgive him. But I believe he is no longer a man for our times, and for this we should no longer enshrine him.”

“The disparity between Thomas Jefferson’s creed and his deeds is no longer worth defending,” Piper continued. “Whatever we decide to do, we should strive to avoid the discrepancy between our principles and our actions that so clearly plagued Thomas Jefferson. We UUs have a regrettable tendency to substitute lofty words and symbolic gestures in place of the hard work it will take to bring about social justice in our society.”

Bo Chagnon, a member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C., spoke against a name change. “Thomas Jefferson did more than any other person in the history of western civilization to move the arc of the Judeo-Christian tradition towards Unitarian Universalism,” he wrote in an email.

Wendy DeGroat, a member of the First UU Church of Richmond, Va., spoke on behalf of a name change. “A name is one of the doors through which you invite people into your community or congregation,” she said in an interview. “If that name is one that people identify with in a different way, or they have an emotional reaction to it, that door seems closed to them. Changing the name to something that allows more people to come in is like putting a ‘welcome’ sign on the door.”

“Thomas Jefferson has many qualities that deserve to be honored and held up,” DeGroat said. “But I also feel strongly that there are other stories that need to be welcomed.”

District President Jim Key expressed disappointment that the name change didn’t pass, writing on the District President News blog May 3, “While I am deeply disappointed that the motion to change the name of the district did not carry, I am encouraged by the significant number of congregations and delegates who followed the name change discussion on webinars, at town hall meetings, on this blog. Most of the 42 congregations represented at the annual meeting had held forums and congregational meetings to charge their delegates on how they wished them to vote. This is a fine example of our Fifth Principle working effectively.”

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