July 5, 2008

What The Sphinx Believed

I'm going to listen to a biography of Jefferson on CD over the next week and I hope to learn more about one of the most interesting figures in all of history. Yesterday's meditation upon the Declaration of Independence only whetted my appetite for it.

In that discussion, I bypassed discussing Jefferson's oblique references to a "Creator" and "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence to focus on the political and legal situation which was the subject of the Declaration. So today, I'll take the subject head-on. Some Christian apologists who claim Thomas Jefferson as one of their own and cite those passages from the Declaration as their primary evidence for that claim. This seems to me to be a great overreaching -- even if Jefferson had been a devout Christian and a biblical literalist, the Declaration was still no more a religious document than would be a pastor's credit card statement and it would be as significant a mistake to cite the Declaration as a religious document as it would be to call it a cookbook.

But Jefferson was no Biblical literalist. Today, though, I came across an article in the Fish Wrapper that reminded me of a powerful piece of evidence demonstrating Jefferson's lack of belief in the supernatural. The article describes the "Jefferson Bible," which started out life as a regular Bible of the day before Jefferson took scissors to it and excised all of the references to supernatural events. The result was a 44-page "wee little book."

You can read the whole thing here.

At the same time, Jefferson did seem to believe in a diety of some kind. "Say nothing of my religion," Jefferson instructed his daughter in a letter that survives to this day. "It is known to myself and my God alone." So I don't think atheists can claim Jefferson as one of their own; an atheist does not concede the existence of a deity the way Jefferson did by referring to "my God."

Certainly, Christians ought not to claim Jefferson as one of their own. No Christian worthy of the name would take it upon himself to expurgate the Bible. Even if he were to so presume, a Christian would not do so with the aim and end of removing any reference to Jesus' divinity, all of the miracles performed by Jesus, or any of the other supernatural event surrounding the life of Jesus. Seeing Jesus as an incarnation of God is the very essence of Christianity.

But to Jefferson, what survived his editing were only the moral teachings of Jesus the man. Jefferson found those teachings instructive and admirable. Jesus the God disappears entirely from the Jefferson Bible; he is reduced from being the Son of God to being a teacher of morality.

It seems far more likely that Jefferson was a Deist, or something like it -- he believed in a supernatural cause, a Prime Mover, a creator-deity, an Uncaused Cause -- but did not believe that this Creator was actively involved in the affairs of men or that a personal relationship with that deity was either feasible or fruitful. Having created the universe, the Deist's Creator had fulfilled its purpose and there was no proof of any further interference by the Creator within the Creation. Many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic were more open about their Deism than Jefferson and it was popular to subscribe to this belief in elite and intellectual circles.

Why, then, was Jefferson so coy about his own religious beliefs? My own theory is that Jefferson was a vain and politically ambitious man. (While I admit that I have not done the exhaustive biographical research to prove it, I don't think this is much of a stretch.) He knew that being an open disbeliever in Christianity would not be popular and could be an impediment to his ability to achieve high office, political and social influence, and most of all, the respect and admiration of others which he craved so greatly. It is instructive that there are strong hints of George Washington's disbelief, which Washington went to pains to conceal during his lifetime, as well; both men were ambitious and spent much of their lives seeking positions of influence which required the approval of voters and both came from the same Enlightenment educational tradition in which Deism was both fashionable and useful for reconciling philosophical morality with new scientific knowledge. Jefferson and Washington may have happened upon the same strategy independently, in collaboration, or in imitation of one another.

Of course, the question of whether Jefferson was a Christian, Deist, or atheist is not relevant to the question of which brand of world-view is superior today; nor is it relevant to the absolute truth of those belief systems. Nor is it particularly important to our contemporary understanding, interpretation, or application of Constitutional law with respect to the relationship of church and state. We need to make our own decisions for the problems we face today -- that's something that Jefferson would for sure have agreed with. But his deeply ambiguous faith is a matter of historical interest and we can profit from a study of so influential a figure in American history.


zzi said...

Jefferson and Madison attending church services on public property, in the House of Representatives.

Maybe he liked the waffle breakfast they served afterwards.

Burt Likko said...

LOL! But that's not even the best evidence available for the case that Jefferson was Christian after all. Let me help you: He served as a vestryman in the Anglican church of Fredricksville before he entered the Virginia House of Burgesses; and he attended church services in Charlottesville after his term as President was over, albeit irregularly, bringing his own folding chair with him.

There are some very strong hints that he thought the whole country should be Unitarian and believed that Unitarianism was the best formal religion available.

Yet he also said "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other." Maybe he was an Arian.

But also consider his original phrasing in the Declaration of Independence -- before the wording got edited by his collagues into its more well-known form: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness... His original wording would have omitted the "Creator" endowing men with rights; he saw a man's rights as simply a function of his humanity.

I don't doubt that he admired Jesus and considered him an outstanding teacher of morality. I think that's why he kept going to church -- because that was a place where he could 1) get access to a discussion of Jesus' teachings; 2) be social with his neighbors and colleagues (with or without waffles) ; and 3) make an impression upon the people he wanted to impress with his ostensible piety.

zzi said...

Maybe you need to write the book -

"Atheist guide to Christianity or: why the Danbury Letter didn't make into the constitution.

TJ was more fearful of the Papacy that Christianity in general.

He also never wanted a powerful federal government until he was President then did an end run around congress in purchasing the Louisiana territories. Maybe Tenn. would have stayed French and you would be speaking french and wearing a powder wig to court.

PS Please key that car that took up two parking spaces.