I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Thomas Jefferson. He has figured prominently the last couple of weeks in both of the courses that I am currently teaching, an upper-division class on U. S. history to 1865, and a general-education course on race and ethnicity as themes in the American past. I get excited when I teach about Jefferson, not only because he played such a crucial role in our national history, but also because he has loomed so large in American memory. My goal in all of my classes is to encourage life-long learning. I’m not concerned that my students memorize a bunch of discrete historical facts; I want them to get a glimpse of how engagement with the past can enrich their lives for all of their lives. This means, in part, helping them to see history as a living conversation, an ongoing dialogue with the past that occurs in the present with an eye to the future.
Historian David Harlan has written that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the past about what we should value and how we should live.” When Americans approach the past in this vein–when we study history to understand who we have been and to contemplate who we want to be–our nation’s third president inevitably becomes central to the conversation. As Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis has observed, Thomas Jefferson is “the dead white male who matters most” to us.
Why this is true is an open question, but I suspect that the paramount reason has to do with Jefferson’s principal role in crafting the Declaration of Independence. The Second Continental Congress edited considerably the draft that Jefferson constructed in 1776 (in consultation with delegates John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman). The wording was still predominantly his, however, and by the end of his life the wording had become exclusively his, at least in memory of the American people.
If Americans remembered George Washington as the sword of the Revolution, in other words, they venerated Jefferson as the pen. The general may have secured independence on the battlefield, but it was the sage of Monticello who (along with Thomas Paine) had justified the Revolution and explained its meaning to posterity. Ever since, Americans across the political spectrum–liberals and conservatives, Christians and secularists, patriots and cynics–have looked to Jefferson to define what the United States stood for at its birth.
Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791.
Two examples come quickly to mind. The first involves questions of social justice and equality. From the argument over slavery before the Civil War to the struggle for civil rights a century later, Americans have debated what Jefferson meant–and what contemporaries thought that he meant–in asserting in 1776 that “all men are created equal.” A second example, particularly important to evangelical Christians in recent decades, concerns the proper place of religious belief in the public square. At least since Jefferson was cited authoritatively by the Supreme Court in 1947, Americans have contested the meaning and validity of his oft-quoted 1802 assertion that the First Amendment erected “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Both issues are unquestionably important, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking to understand Jefferson’s position on either one. And yet, because both subjects are so controversial, because they are fraught with policy implications and partisan consequences, the temptation to label Jefferson rather than learn from him has been immense. Caught up in contemporary debates, our goal becomes primarily to prove that Jefferson is on “our side.”
This is especially true of the ongoing contest to define the extent of America’s Christian heritage, a struggle nicely encapsulated in the title of John Fea’s book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Given Jefferson’s stature as the author of the nation’s founding charter, combined with his seminal early role in debates over the public place of religion in American life, it is understandable that Jefferson’s religious beliefs have become a battleground in the contest over this larger question.
Understandable, but also unfortunate.
There is a cost to using history primarily as a weapon. Rather than facilitating our understanding, it actually gets in our way, making it harder–not easier–to see the past rightly. Complex answers don’t fare well in public debates, even when they’re true. One of my favorite observations on this point comes from the pen of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor to the United States who related his observations in the classic Democracy in America. Tocqueville concluded, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.” Tocqueville nailed it. Simple, appealing answers are always preferable when your goal is to win the battle for public opinion.
Beyond distorting our vision, what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach also commonly feeds our pride. Self-righteousness is often one of its first fruits. After triumphantly “discovering” what we had predetermined to find, we applaud our superior understanding, congratulate ourselves on our disinterested commitment to truth, and condemn our opponents for their blindness and bias.
But when the debate that we’re drawn into concerns the nature of the religious beliefs of the nation’s founders, there is something more important at stake than historical accuracy or our personal character. In assessing whether our nation’s founders were Christian, we’re inevitably saying something as well about the Christian faith and Christ himself. Stephen Nichols makes this point marvelously in his book Jesus: Made in America. As Nichols puts it, when we exaggerate the degree to which the founders were Christian, we not only “do injustice to the past and to the true thought of the founders,” but we also do “injustice to Christianity and the true picture of Jesus.”
I read Nichols’ book over Christmas vacation, and his point finally convinced me to speak out about David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Nelson, 2012). I had long hesitated to write about Barton’s contentious “scholarship.” Numerous historians (several conservative Christian scholars among them) have already called attention to its numerous factual errors, half-truths, and misinterpretations, but it seems to me that Nichols’ point has somehow gotten lost in their critique of Barton’s historical claims.
Certainly, as a piece of historical scholarship, the book is awful. I take no pleasure in saying so, but no other word will do. But it has another quality which may ultimately be more detrimental in its effect on Christian readers: it is relentlessly anti-intellectual. Barton prepares his readers for the criticism his views will elicit by means of a preemptive first strike. The views about Jefferson that he disagrees with are “lies.” (It follows that those who promote such views are liars.) Those who side with his critics are “ill informed or ill intentioned.” Academic historians disagree with him because they have been corrupted by a range of “isms” that lead to historical “malpractice.” Almost every work of U. S. history written since 1900 is suspect (except his own, of course). Barton’s advice: flush the last century of historical scholarship and depend on earlier works less likely to be “infected with our modern agendas.”
Note also that there is a “bait-and-switch” dimension to Barton’s promise to sweep away the “lies.” After explaining in the opening pages why academic scholarship cannot be trusted, when Barton actually shifts his attention in subsequent chapters to specific claims about Jefferson, the “lies” that he exposes often come from sources that few academic scholars would find credible, such as journalistic essays, personal web sites, and Facebook pages. (Can’t we all find someone on the internet who disagrees with us?) In some instances, at least, Barton is clearly toppling a straw man.
Let me be clear: my goal is not primarily to defend the Academy against an outsider. Is some modern scholarship ideologically driven and hostile to traditional Christian values? Absolutely. But Barton’s approach is not preparing us to think Christianly or to argue persuasively about other perspectives. He is training us simply to attack the character of those who disagree with us. This is not a winsome witness to the world. It is more like schoolyard name-calling.
Why is this a big deal? It is a big deal because an important part of what historical interpretations teach us has little to do with the past per se. Our historical interpretations always contain a “teaching behind the teaching,” to borrow a phrase from Christian writer Parker Palmer. Even when the “teaching behind the teaching” is not explicit, works of history are modeling to us a particular way of thinking about the past and of engaging with the present. Even apart from its contentious claims about Thomas Jefferson, I shudder to think that my brothers and sisters in the Church are learning from books like The Jefferson Lies about what it means to love God with our minds.
But in the end I think Stephen Nichols’ observation presents us with by far the most important concern to raise about the book: what does Barton’s representation of Jefferson teach readers about Christ and the Christian faith? Of the seven “lies” that Barton claims to refute, the final one is the most pertinent to this question, the supposed claim that “Thomas Jefferson was an atheist and not a Christian.”
Logically, this seventh “lie” involves two claims rather than one, and Barton should never have joined the two. If Jefferson was indeed an atheist, of course, it is necessarily the case that he was also not a Christian. The converse, however, is far from true, i.e., to establish that Jefferson was not an atheist in no way proves that he was a Christian. (The world is full of non-Christians who believe in God.) I can’t read Barton’s mind, but I find myself wondering whether he formulated this illogical proposition intentionally. Linking the two claims into one proposition helps to obscure the weakness of his argument about Jefferson’s supposed Christian faith. Jefferson was no atheist, and proving that he wasn’t is easy. (There is scarcely a single reputable scholar who argues that he was an atheist, by the way, a fact you wouldn’t learn by reading The Jefferson Lies.) The evidence that Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian, on the other hand, is irrefutable.
I can imagine that you might be uncomfortable with my making such a dogmatic statement about Jefferson’s personal faith. Who am I, after all, to claim to have penetrated the man’s heart? But that is not what I am claiming at all. Yes, only God knows our hearts perfectly, so when someone claims to have made a profession of Christian faith, we are rightly hesitant to declare that God has not done a work in his or her heart, even if there seems to be much evidence to the contrary. But when someone comes to us and explicitly renounces the central pillars of historical Christian orthodoxy, it does not require divine insight to categorize that person as not a Christian, at least according to the historic creeds that have defined the boundaries of orthodoxy for centuries.
Take, for example, the Apostles’ Creed, a distillation of Christian belief that took its final form in the seventh century. By my calculation, Jefferson explicitly repudiated at least two thirds of its indicative statements. Did Jefferson “believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”? Yes. Did he believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”? Possibly. Did he believe that Jesus was God’s “only Son,” that he “was conceived of the Holy Spirit” and “born of the virgin Mary,” that he ” rose again from the dead,” that he “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty,” or that Jesus will come again “to judge the living and the dead?” The answers are no, no, no, no, and no. Measured by the Apostles’ Creed, Jefferson was a heretic, and we don’t need to plumb the depths of his heart to conclude this.
To his credit, Barton concedes (in a masterpiece of understatement) that “in his later years” Jefferson’s views “do not comport with an orthodox understanding of what it means to be a Christian.” But he immediately goes on to insist–in the very same sentence–that “throughout his life Jefferson was pro-Christian and pro-Jesus in his beliefs.” Barton’s assertion that Jefferson only fell into heresy late in life is almost certainly wrong, but I am not going to take the time here to address it systematically. For our purposes, it is enough to examine how Barton characterizes Jefferson’s religious views in his old age. According to Barton, they were BOTH (1) outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, AND (2) “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus.” How can both of these conclusions be true?
They can both be true only if Barton is separating our perceptions of Jesus from the historic, orthodox understanding of Christ embodied in the creeds, which is precisely what enabled Jefferson to move toward heresy in the first place. After divorcing his understanding of Jesus from the historic creeds, Jefferson went on to jettison much of the Bible as well. Scripture was not the ultimate arbiter of truth by Jefferson’s reckoning; it was riddled with fabrications, embellishments, and the misunderstandings of human authors less enlightened than he. God had not left his creation without testimony, however. The creator had given to all mankind a moral sense by which to determine right from wrong, and he had also inculcated in humans the faculty of reason, by which they could distinguish between truth and superstition.
“Fix reason firmly in her seat,” Jefferson counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.” In an appalling misreading of Jefferson’s counsel, Barton insists that Jefferson was merely trying to train his nephew to be a good apologist for Christianity, someone who would have a logically consistent and intellectually formidable defense of the faith (an 18th-century Josh McDowell, say). In reality, because Jefferson did not believe that the biblical canon is inspired, he explicitly encouraged his nephew to read the Bible in the same way that he read pagan literature, accepting whatever seemed to be in accord with reason and rejecting all else.
“Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven,” Jefferson stressed to his nephew. With amazing obtuseness, Barton quotes Jefferson’s counsel and underscores (literally italicizes) the phrase “given you by heaven.” It is evidence, he contends, that Jefferson “definitely held a strong, personal, pro-God position.” And yet the idea that reason was a faculty given to man by God was a common Enlightenment belief and hardly uniquely Christian. Far more revealing is Jefferson’s assertion that reason is our ONLY oracle. Indeed, in the very sentence that Barton cites as evidence of Jefferson’s “pro-God” views, Jefferson was actually denying the inspiration of scripture!
Jefferson would have been gratified by Barton’s conclusion that he was “pro-Jesus.” In truth, Jefferson did have unbounded admiration for Jesus–as long as he himself could define who Jesus was, unconstrained by either Scripture or centuries of Church teaching. “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know,” Jefferson once confessed to a Prebyterian minister. Echoing Thomas Paine’s earlier declaration (“My mind is my own church,” Paine had written in The Age of Reason), Jefferson nicely foreshadowed the radical individualism, relativism, and insistent autonomy so pervasive in twenty-first -century America.
By his own testimony, the Jesus that Jefferson admired was an enlightened philosopher, a moral teacher, and a “benevolent and sublime reformer.” The Jesus of Jefferson’s creation was appalled at the superstition of Judaism (“the depraved religion of his own country”). He sought to reform the Jews’ “moral doctrines to the standard of reason.” The God of the Jews was “vindictive, capricious, and unjust,” but Jesus had re-envisioned the Deity by imputing to him “the best qualities of the human head and heart.” In so doing, he had given the world a “Supreme Being . . . really worthy of their adoration.” God became truly worthy of our worship, in other words, once enlightened minds created God in their own image.
And yes, by his own reckoning, Jefferson did think of himself as a Christian, but should that surprise us? (Once Jefferson had finished with Jesus, Jesus looked a lot like Jefferson–why wouldn’t he wish to follow him?) “I am a Christian,” then-president Jefferson wrote confidently to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1803, “in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines; in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” It is more than a little ironic, as Christian scholar Stephen Nichols has pointed out, that so many evangelicals quote the first half of that sentence, given that Jefferson undermined his apparent confession of faith in the second half. “I am a follower of Jesus,” Jefferson was saying, “as long as we understand that he was not the son of God nor ever claimed to be.”
And why does any of this matter, apart from a desire for historical accuracy? It matters because of what Stephen Nichols warned us about–in exaggerating Jefferson’s endorsement of Christianity, Barton is not only making claims about Jefferson. His findings reflect on Christianity, and what is more, they reflect on Christ. For all of its gross historical flaws, what bothers me most about The Jefferson Lies is how its author–himself a former pastor–minimizes the gravity of Jefferson’s heresy.
In all candor, I am at a loss to know how to explain this. My best guess is that Barton has become so all-consumed with his campaign to prove that the Founders weren’t hostile to religion that nothing else matters. Determined to prove the point, Barton drowns out everything else that the past has to say to us, including much that American Christians need to hear.
“Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Jesus asked His disciples in Matthew chapter 16. The correct answer to this question lies at the very heart of the Christian gospel. When Peter proclaims “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus tells Peter he is blessed indeed, because His Father in heaven has revealed this truth to him–the truth upon which Jesus promised to “build My church.”
Today American Christians, including American evangelicals, are increasingly confused about the person of Jesus. A 2009 survey of self-described Christians by the Barna Group found that roughly two-fifths of American Christians believe that Jesus sinned when he lived on earth. An intensive 2010 study of Christian teenagers by Mike Nappa (The Jesus Survey: What Christian Teens Really Believe and Why) found that a clear majority doubted that the Bible was trustworthy, and fully one-third rejected the scriptural teaching that belief in Christ is essential for salvation.
In part, such findings may reflect the impact of a wider culture that glorifies “tolerance” and rejects all exclusive truth claims as narrow-minded or bigoted. But as Kendra Creasy Dean observes in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, it may also reflect the “watered-down gospel” that Christian teens are receiving from the church itself. Nappa agrees, concluding that such enormous misunderstandings of basic Christian truths “wouldn’t be widespread in our youth groups if adult Christians in our churches weren’t also embracing” them.
David Barton apparently believes that the greatest need of the moment is to re-establish the cultural authority of the church in the public square. To further that end, he is determined to prove, at all costs, that one of our most eminent Founders wasn’t as opposed to religion as the Supreme Court seems to think. But it will be a hollow victory for Christians to increase their public presence if they have no more to say about Jesus than what Jefferson himself thought was true.
Barton concludes The Jefferson Lies by characterizing our third president as a man sent by “Divine Providence” to “serve and inspire” us. We would do better to view him as a cautionary tale. Thomas Jefferson had many virtues, but with regard to life’s most important question–the question that Jesus asks each of us, “Who do you think that I am?”–Jefferson got it wrong.