Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Pseudo History of Dave Barton & the First Amendment (Part II)

The Religion of Thomas Jefferson & the English Deists

As we continue to make our case for a constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state it’s important that we look at the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson is currently among the list of revisions being made to United States history in states such as Texas. Late last year I wrote a series of blog posts about the Texas Board of Education’s decision to delete Thomas Jefferson from their history curriculum. Never mind that he was the one who penned the fabulous Declaration of Independence and forget that he was the 3rd president of the United States, Jefferson’s views on politics, morality and religion are not in keeping with the extreme conservative Christian worldview.

The Huffington Post article posted on March 12, 2010 reported that not only did the board vote 10-5 to remove Thomas Jefferson they sought to replace him with the great murdering theocrat of Geneva, John Calvin. This is preposterous to the point you have to hope it was a joke or dismiss it because the liberal skewed Huffington Post reported it. But, this was reported in more mainstream publications and by the conservative right as well who considered it a victory. Sadly, it is true.

John Calvin does not belong in the annals of U.S. history except as a cursory footnote. He never set foot in the new world just his terrifying theology which has informed the faith of many conservative and evangelical religious groups from the beginning of our history.

Removing Jefferson from the study of our nation’s history is akin to removing Jesus or the Apostle Paul from a study of the Christian New Testament. Evangelical Christianity prefers ignorance to truth; darkness to learning. Extremist groups often rewrite history to support their worldview.

It’s much easier to pretend that the separation of church and state never existed when you delete one of the principal proponents of it from history. Whether or not this new Texas curriculum will stand up is still open. It its quite contentious and creationist Don McLeroy lost his election bid for Chairman for Texas Board of Education. McLeroy, like Barton, denies that separation of church and state exists. Thank the very god I don’t believe in that he lost. Perhaps, some intelligence exists in the land where everything is larger than life, including stupidity.

While it is much easier to debate Madison’s personal religious beliefs, Thomas Jefferson’s views are far more concrete. He was raised as a member of the Episcopal (Anglican) church, but he was also deeply influenced by the English Deists. This included the so-called 5 Articles of Deism: [1]

1.Belief in the existence of a single supreme God
2. Humanity’s duty to revere God
3. Linkage of worship with practical morality
4. God will forgive us if we repent and abandon our sins
5. good works will be rewarded (and punishment for evil) both in life and after death

Deism of the time might be best summed up by what Benjamin Franklin referred to as his creed.
Here is my creed. I believe in One God, the Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render Him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion. [2]

Modern deists often go into fits of apoplexy over such assertions as in its modern versions deism is closer to pantheism. The also prefer Humanist ethics. In later versions of deism God is nearly a non-event. He, she or it created the universe and then abandoned it, leaving its creatures to their own devices. There is no reason to worship or pray to this god as one has no recourse to it. It becomes then, a pantheistic reverence of nature and an ethical movement far less religious then its predecessors.

But, Jefferson’s and Franklin’s deism was not divorced from a transcendental god and their morality, for the most part was typical Judeo-Christian, although Franklin would hardly be a poster boy for clean living. The point is Thomas Jefferson believed in a god and was not atheist as some seem to assert.

Unitarians love to hang Jefferson’s cloak in their church closets, but Jefferson, while quite sympathetic, was never a Unitarian. He once remarked that he would like to have attended a Unitarian church but none existed nearby where he lived in Virginia. Our 3rd president was also never a member of any organized deist group despite deism’s influence on his thinking. In regards to Jefferson deism should be considered a theological position rather than a religious affiliation.

Another interesting consideration is that some evangelical groups (albeit not Texas) have even tried to reclaim Thomas Jefferson as an evangelical. But, this is not in keeping with historical fact. First, evangelicals of his time were not particularly fond of Jefferson except when he supported certain tax exemptions for church organizations in furthering the separation of church and state. Most importantly, Jefferson’s views of Jesus were not in keeping with a traditional Christian theological view evangelical or otherwise.

Jefferson did a little cut and paste number on the scriptures that is aptly named the Jefferson Bible. In it he removed all stories of the miracles, virgin birth and the resurrection, leaving only the parables and straight out ethical teachings. Jefferson was highly skeptical of Jesus as the Risen Christ or second person of the trinity. Rather than being divine, Jesus was a highly ethical teacher and good man. Thomas Jefferson referred to this little exercise as similar to culling diamonds from a dung heap. These views cannot be construed to be evangelical by any stretch or revision of the truth.

Later in his life Thomas Jefferson would have no official church affiliation. He would no longer consider himself an Episcopal, but both a deist and a follower of Jesus. Thomas Jefferson was a freethinker of his day.

To be continued


[1] Deism: God and Reason without Revelation, The English Deists –Introduction

[2] Ibid

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