Rediscovering Jefferson

It seems like just the other day that they were changing the name of the "Jefferson-Jackson Dinner" because they'd decided that those two Presidents represented everything bad about America.

Now it turns out that Jefferson is a model of what a good President looks like after all.
In the early days of December 1805, a handful of prominent politicians received formal invitations to join President Thomas Jefferson for a White House dinner.... "dinner will be on the table precisely at sun-set - " the invitations read. "The favour of an answer is asked."

The occasion was the presence of a Tunisian envoy to the United States, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who had arrived in the country just the week before, in the midst of America's ongoing conflict with what were then known as the Barbary States. And the reason for the dinner's later-than-usual start was Mellimelli's observance of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims in which observers fast between dawn and dusk. Only after sunset do Muslims break their fast with a meal, referred to as an iftar.

Jefferson's decision to change the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli's observance of Ramadan has been seized on by both sides in the 21st-century debate over Islam more than 200 years later. Historians have cited the meal as the first time an iftar took place in the White House - and it has been referenced in recent White House celebrations of Ramadan as an embodiment of the Founding Father's respect for religious freedom. Meanwhile, critics on the far right have taken issue with the characterization of Jefferson's Dec. 9, 1805, dinner as an iftar.

Whatever Jefferson could have foreseen for the young country's future, it appears the modern-day White House tradition of marking Ramadan with an iftar dinner or Eid celebration has come to an end.
There's no reason why a President of the United States should celebrate any religious holidays other than his own, and that in a private manner that doesn't imply any endorsement by the United States of America. The alternative is trying to treat every religion equally, which is a hard pull in a nation as diverse as the United States. It's inevitable that you'll end up with a top-tier of religions who get honored (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and a second-tier that is maybe memorialized in some way sometimes (Hinduism, Buddhism), and a bottom-tier who aren't remembered at all (including some very worthy faiths like Sikhism).

It makes sense for a non-religious man like Donald Trump to adopt the first course of action rather than the second. A deeply religious man, like George W. Bush, is more likely to take the second tack and try to do it as fairly as he can. But the second tack is much harder to make work fairly, and much more likely to yield legitimate grievances among those whose faiths don't make the cut for official celebration for whatever reasons.


Tom said...

And Jefferson was also responsible for the adding of "to the shores of Tripoli" to the Marine Corps Hymn. First iftar, first foreign war against an Islamic power ... a long tradition indeed.

Grim said...

Their relationship to Jefferson is at least as complex as his relationship to Islam. But Jefferson had the right attitude: courtesy in diplomacy, strictness in war.

Anonymous said...

You pegged Trump's course, which has been observable in several contexts.

When he went to Saudi, he took his wife. She wore a voluminous black outfit that was described as stylish and modest in the local press, but it was also a jumpsuit, with pant legs instead of a skirt. She did not wear a veil.

When they went to the Vatican, she wore a black lace dress suitable for a church, and a veil. I took one look at the picture, and decided that she must have been raised Catholic.

Both of them understand diplomacy very well.