The Library of Congress
The New York Times has an OpEd piece on Jefferson's view of religion, "Thomas Jefferson's Bible-Teaching." It's by two historians, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf, and certainly worth reading. Both are careful scholars and here cautiously present their discussion of Jefferson's views without strongly waving their editorial flag. Even so, one could perceive the flag twitching behind their backs, for clearly they are exhibiting Jefferson's views as a much-needed corrective to the religious fanaticism and partisan wars that still bedevil us today. I agree with much of what they say, so it may seem churlish to object to a surprising blind spot at the center of their argument.
The article reminds us that for much of his career Jefferson was viewed by opponents as a dangerous atheist. "Rumors spread that Jefferson planned to outlaw the Bible. On his watch, [Federalists] said, incest and adultery would run rampant." But Gordon-Reed and Onuf make haste to point out—make haste to reassure us, it could be said—that Jefferson was no atheist, but an admirer of Jesus who only wished to strip away the superstitions that the Bible and its later followers had added. They note that one of Jefferson's intellectual projects led him to go through the New Testament and carefully cut away anything that obscured the actual words and thoughts of Jesus himself. Jefferson didn't publish this unusual editing, a kind of Readers Digest Condensed version of the New Testament, nor did he even share it with his family. But he did view these core beliefs as a model for the way Americans might one day evolve in a republic guaranteeing the freedom of religion.
Clearly Gordon-Reed and Onuf share this broadminded view—and exhibit it as worth emulating. "Far from being an atheist," they say—God forbid one should be an atheist!—"Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called 'civil religion,' the moral foundation of a truly free and united people." They point out that in 1904, Congress was so enamored of this vision of shared religious values that it actually printed 9,000 copies of this "Jefferson Bible," to be distributed to senators and representatives in Congress.
Most devout Christians today “would be appalled by Congress’s action,” say Gordon-Reed and Onuf. But they're not appalled too? In a nation which, thanks in good measure to Jefferson, prides itself on a separation of church and state, what business does Congress have printing any Bible—Jefferson's version, the King James, the Old Testament, or the Koran?
But Gordon-Reed and Onuf seem quite comfortable with the idea that all Americans can join in a version of Christianity that has been Enlightened-up (or is it watered-down?) by the Sage of Monticello. Americans who are non-believers, atheists, secular humanists, are left out of the equation. Yes, the Constitution prevents religious "tests for office," they say, but they find it hard to imagine "how a candidate who professed to have no religious beliefs could find favor." This doesn't seem to bother them. Their essay ends with a paean to "Jefferson’s idealistic vision of American civil religion, the shared faith of a free people," which in a world full of religious bigotry, seems "all the more attractive."
In the nineteenth or twentieth century, the view of all Americans united under a religious standard might still pass for a spacious ecumenism. But in the twenty-first century, when increasing numbers of citizens matter-of-factly and even proudly embrace a secular moral standard, the notion seems more specious than spacious. The solution is to let believers and nonbelievers alike affirm their theologies and philosophies as they choose, separate from the embrace of the government, not to try to unite everyone under the umbrella of a vague "civil religion."
On this matter, I prefer the Eisenhower Doctrine of church and state to Jefferson’s, even if Ike didn't recognize the unintentional humor in his words: "Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors