Jefferson’s Lesson for Democrats

By David Leonhardt, New York Times,  JULY 5, 2017 Excerpt  (full text) — the historian Daniel Williams urged the party to confront its religion problem. That problem centers on “a generational and racial divide between a largely secular group of young, white party activists and an older electorate that is more religious and more socially conservative,” Williams wrote. “Put simply, outside of a few progressive districts, secular-minded young activists in the party are unable to win voters’ trust.” In yesterday’s Times, the historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf offered a surprising suggestion for where Democrats can find a solution to their religion problem: Thomas Jefferson.…; they’re talking instead about broader civic values. But I was struck by the connection between the Jeffersonian values they describe and the Democrats’ modern-day religion struggles. Jefferson infused his political philosophy with Christian values, even though he was not a deeply religious man in the traditional sense. “He adhered to the ‘philosophy’ of Jesus while rejecting ‘mystifications’ that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife,” Gordon-Reed and Onuf write. “He was confident that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible.”…His political opponents argued that he wasn’t really religious and spread rumors about his supposed atheism. But Jefferson still managed to be a pretty successful politician. I encourage you to read the piece.

Thomas Jefferson’s Bible Teaching By ANNETTE GORDON-REED and PETER S. ONUF, New York Times, JULY 4, 2017 – Excerpt  (full text)

It was an article of Thomas Jefferson’s faith that no government should interfere in anyone’s private religious beliefs. A passionate student of history, Jefferson knew that religious struggles through the ages had caused “rivers of blood” to flow all over the world…The blood is still flowing… One of Jefferson’s most fervent hopes was that Americans would be spared this carnage, and he did his best to set us on that path. It’s worth pausing, this Fourth of July, to ponder this facet of Jefferson’s deep wisdom, and how well we’ve lived up to it.

Jefferson believed the best way to ensure that both peace and religious liberty could flourish would be to educate citizens to avoid violent disagreements over trivial doctrinal distinctions through a constitutional regime that prevented government from favoring one set of religious beliefs over another…. By the mid-1790s, he had developed a reputation as a faithless philosopher, even an atheist, certainly not a Christian. This was a grave matter, for religious beliefs then, as now, are often conflated with character…. Their talking point was clear: Jefferson’s atheism disqualified him from the presidency. But Jefferson was no atheist. As a young man, he embraced the tenets of “natural religion,” or deism, rejecting conventional Christianity and any use of religious dogma as a tool to control people…

Through Bible study this self-professed “primitive Christian” sought to hear Jesus’ original, uncorrupted voice, imagining himself in his teacher’s presence. Jesus preached to the “family of man,” anticipating the humane and cosmopolitan precepts of the enlightened age that Jefferson was convinced would inevitably arrive. He adhered to the “philosophy” of Jesus while rejecting “mystifications” that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife. … he believed that religion, stripped of the supernatural, should always be an integral part of American society… In 1804, Jefferson took a razor to English, French, Latin and Greek versions of the New Testament to construct a clear account of Jesus’ original, uncorrupted teachings…“Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” … he was confident that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible.

Far from being an atheist, Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called “civil religion,” the moral foundation of a truly free and united people… In 1904, Congress had the Government Printing Office issue 9,000 copies of the “Jefferson Bible” for distribution among senators and congressmen…. religious faithful who opposed Jefferson would have been even more scandalized by his effort to “improve” the Bible — and his vision of a time when every “thinking” person would be a Unitarian…. Throughout history, we Americans have waged religious battles of our own, mainly through legislation that regulated citizens’ behavior on the basis of moral values that were religious ones in disguise. Although the Constitution prohibits religious tests for office, it is hard to imagine how a candidate who professed to have no religious beliefs could find favor. Jefferson’s hopes have not yet been realized…Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law and history at Harvard, and Peter S. Onuf, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Virginia, are the authors of “‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.”

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 4, 2017, on Page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Jefferson’s Bible Teaching. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

 

 

David Leonhardt

“He adhered to the ‘philosophy’ of Jesus while rejecting ‘mystifications’ that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife,” Gordon-Reed and Onuf write. “He was confident that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible.”

Oh, and something else: His political opponents argued that he wasn’t really religious and spread rumors about his supposed atheism. But Jefferson still managed to be a pretty successful politician.

I encourage you to read the piece.

By ANNETTE GORDON-REED and PETER S. ONUFJULY 4, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/opinion/thomas-jeffersons-bible-teaching.html

It was an article of Thomas Jefferson’s faith that no government should interfere in anyone’s private religious beliefs. A passionate student of history, Jefferson knew that religious struggles through the ages had caused “rivers of blood” to flow all over the world.

The blood is still flowing. News of sectarian violence reaches us daily from across the globe, bringing us unimaginably horrific and mind-numbing images. One of Jefferson’s most fervent hopes was that Americans would be spared this carnage, and he did his best to set us on that path. It’s worth pausing, this Fourth of July, to ponder this facet of Jefferson’s deep wisdom, and how well we’ve lived up to it.

Jefferson believed the best way to ensure that both peace and religious liberty could flourish would be to educate citizens to avoid violent disagreements over trivial doctrinal distinctions through a constitutional regime that prevented government from favoring one set of religious beliefs over another.

He discovered how hard it was to divorce religion from politics during his bid for the presidency in 1800. He had what today we’d call “a religion problem.” By the mid-1790s, he had developed a reputation as a faithless philosopher, even an atheist, certainly not a Christian. This was a grave matter, for religious beliefs then, as now, are often conflated with character. Nervous New Englanders and his enemies in the Federalist Party took this notion to heart; rumors spread that Jefferson planned to outlaw the Bible.

On his watch, they said, incest and adultery would run rampant. He betrayed his true sentiments, they claimed, by his ardent support of the French Revolution, which sought to eradicate religion in France. Their talking point was clear: Jefferson’s atheism disqualified him from the presidency.

But Jefferson was no atheist. As a young man, he embraced the tenets of “natural religion,” or deism, rejecting conventional Christianity and any use of religious dogma as a tool to control people. As he aged, however, Jefferson undertook a spiritual quest that focused his attention intensively on the New Testament.

Through Bible study this self-professed “primitive Christian” sought to hear Jesus’ original, uncorrupted voice, imagining himself in his teacher’s presence. Jesus preached to the “family of man,” anticipating the humane and cosmopolitan precepts of the enlightened age that Jefferson was convinced would inevitably arrive. He adhered to the “philosophy” of Jesus while rejecting “mystifications” that offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of religious strife.

Still, Jefferson’s refusal to talk about his religious beliefs fueled suspicions. He insisted that his religious faith was nobody’s business but his own.

In fact, he knew that people were not ready to hear his unorthodox views. But he prepared for the day when they would be, for he believed that religion, stripped of the supernatural, should always be an integral part of American society. He even created a guidebook, of sorts.

In 1804, Jefferson took a razor to English, French, Latin and Greek versions of the New Testament to construct a clear account of Jesus’ original, uncorrupted teachings. Pressed by public business, he didn’t complete his painstakingly executed “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” until retirement. Even then, Jefferson did not want to publicize his project — or even share it with his family. But he was confident that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible.

Far from being an atheist, Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later called “civil religion,” the moral foundation of a truly free and united people. This is how American Christians understood him a century after he began editing the Bible. In 1904, Congress had the Government Printing Office issue 9,000 copies of the “Jefferson Bible” for distribution among senators and congressmen.

It’s a good bet that most devout Christians now would be appalled by Congress’s action, and that today’s Congress would never consider publishing it. The religious faithful who opposed Jefferson would have been even more scandalized by his effort to “improve” the Bible — and his vision of a time when every “thinking” person would be a Unitarian. They were right to suspect that the Sage of Monticello had designs on America’s religious future, but wrong about the elements of his designs.

Fulfilling Jefferson’s enlightened vision has not been easy. Throughout history, we Americans have waged religious battles of our own, mainly through legislation that regulated citizens’ behavior on the basis of moral values that were religious ones in disguise. Although the Constitution prohibits religious tests for office, it is hard to imagine how a candidate who professed to have no religious beliefs could find favor.

Jefferson’s hopes have not yet been realized. The dispiriting wave of religion-based violence abroad, and sometimes violent flare-ups here over issues like abortion and L.B.G.T.Q. rights, make Jefferson’s idealistic vision of American civil religion, the shared faith of a free people, all the more attractive.

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law and history at Harvard, and Peter S. Onuf, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Virginia, are the authors of “‘Most Blessed of the Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.”

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