Saturday, March 15, 2008

Was Jefferson a heretic or a believer? Yes.

The founder of, Steven Waldman, has published a new book called Founding Faith. It promises to be fairly interesting, especially to those who consider ours a nation founded on the teachings of the Bible. Beliefnet offers an excerpt from the book concerning Thomas Jefferson, and it led me to wonder if there would be any possible way that Jefferson would be elected to any public office today.

Sadly, his candidacy wouldn't have a snowball's chance. Those who are upset over lapel pins and which church our candidates belong to would be choking on their communion wafers if they were to read anything written by this founding father. His beliefs (like most of ours) are complex. He edited the Bible (with a razor) to remove the miracles of Jesus, he called the Trinity "mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus," and said that, "Calvinism has introduced into the Christian religion more new absurdities than its leader [Jesus] had purged it of old ones." He went on to say regarding what he called "the insanities of Calvin" that the, "strait jacket alone was their proper remedy."

Wow. Imagine the Evangelicals receiving that mailer in their postbox. And then imagine James Dobson's response.

Yet Waldman also provides a look at a person whose reason led him to faith in Christ and God. It's fair to say that he was anti-religion and pro-God. Some of the quotes Waldman has provided suggest Jefferson was someone who may have believed in Intelligent Design. He saw what he viewed as a complex interconnectedness in the universe and viewed that as a work of Divine Providence. However, it's important to remember that throughout his life, more than any religious view he may have held, Jefferson stressed the importance of reason and study (i.e. I'm sure he'd be dead-set against those who'd like to introduce Intelligent Design in a public high school biology class and would have fought back). Take that, Ben Stein.

I find it difficult not to cheer for Thomas Jefferson as a champion of liberty, religious freedom, and rational thinking. I also find his participation in the horror of slavery contradictory to those values and depressing. That's important. It would be good to take the entire lives of our founding individuals and historical religious and philosophical figures into account as we study and judge them and their ideas. We need to hold them, their views, and the circumstances of their life and times up for study and scrutiny in order to gain a true sense of who they were as they've helped shape who we are. By the way he studied the Bible, Christianity's history, and the teachings of Jesus, I think Thomas Jefferson understood and practiced this.

It may be one of the things about him that I admire most.



I love reading this kind of stuff and in fact have a strong interest in establishment clause issues. Did you know also that this author was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air earlier this week? It was a pretty darn good interview and summary of his work for those of us (like me) who don't have time to read as many books as we would like.

Gene said...

Thanks for stopping by! I'll have to check out the Fresh Air interview if they repeat it. Was it the second half of the episode that featured Richard Dawkins?

Tracy Simmons said...

You know what encourages me so much about this post and Jefferson's life? It is the fact that God loves and works in and through very imperfect people....hey, maybe even me! I think I often hold back in my own life because I am only too aware of just how dimly I see (spiritually, that is), and how incomplete and imperfect my knowledge and wisdom really are. So, I found this post encouraging as there is so much to admire in Jefferson and so much not to admire, all in the same human being...just like me, I imagine.

Funniest line in this post: "And then imagine James Dobson's response." Oh, man, that cracked me up!