Palin/Bachmann, Thomas Jefferson, and Religion

by Dave Mindeman

As the local news coverage saturates papers and the airwaves with everything remotely related to Palin or Bachmann, I get reminded ever more clearly about how much the political discourse is saturated with religion. And it is especially troubling the way Palin and Bachmann, and others who mix religion and politics, quote and ascribe to the Founding Fathers, the same religious fervor that they believe in.

Many times you will hear the words of Thomas Jefferson quoted in an almost sacred context. But the truth of the matter is that Thomas Jefferson was not a devout Christian, at least not in the sense that Bachmann or Palin would expect. Oh, Jefferson believed in a Supreme Being….he even looked to Jesus as the ultimate moral compass. But beyond that I’m afraid Sarah and Michele would be deeply disappointed in this American icon.

He was in fact a deist. He believed in a divine presence beyond ourselves but not in the God of Christianity. He was born into the Anglican church….later claimed Presbyterian as his denomination. But later in life he adopted a Unitarian philosophy, but never again joined an organized church.

Jon Butler, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Yale University, has written extensivly about the religious affiliations of the early founders. He had a few things to point out about Thomas Jefferson:

Well, Jefferson’s interesting because recently evangelicals, some evangelicals, have tried to make Jefferson out as an evangelical. Jefferson actually was deeply interested in the question of religion and morals and it’s why Jefferson, particularly in his later years, developed a notebook of Jesus’ sayings that he found morally and ethically interesting. It’s now long since been published and is sometimes called, “The Jefferson Bible.” But Jefferson had real trouble with the Divinity of Christ and he had real trouble with the description of various events mentioned in both the New and the Old Testament so that he was an enlightened skeptic who was profoundly interested in the figure of Christ as a human being and as an ethical teacher.

Now I would assume that Michele Bachmann would be the first to tell you that any person who questions the divinity of Jesus is NOT a Christian. Her hero, Mr. Jefferson, was not “saved”. But let’s delve deeper into the “Jefferson Bible” and Jefferson’s feelings about the New Testament:

Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus written in the New Testament had been contaminated. Early Christians, overly eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These “Platonists” had thoroughly muddled Jesus’ original message. Jefferson assured his friend and rival, John Adams, that the authentic words of Jesus were still there……..Jefferson omitted the words that he thought were inauthentic and retained those he believed were original. The resulting work is commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible”.

So we have strike two against Jefferson. He obviously questions the “inerrancy” of the Bible. A Christian in the Palin/Bachmann sense would never succumb to that kind of sacrilege. Jefferson even goes so far as to write his own version of the New Testament teachings. A shocking thing to do from a Christian standpoint. In fact, he goes so far as to decide himself what is true and what is not true:

Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the gospels; he was uncomfortable with any reference to miracles, so with two copies of the New Testament, he cut and pasted them together, excising all references to miracles, from turning water to wine, to the resurrection.

OK — questioning the resurrection. I think we have strike three. Jefferson is out — in the evangelical sense.

Really, we can sum up the Jefferson philosophy regarding religion and politics via a quote from his “Notes on Virginia”:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury to my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” — Thomas Jefferson

Think about all of that the next time you hear Sarah or Michele or Hannity or O’Reilly make that next Jefferson quote.

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