(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding. I did not write the essay below specifically to respond to David Barton’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in his work The Jefferson Lies, but anyone familiar with his argument in that book will recognize that I disagree with it strongly.)
Were our Founding Fathers devout Christians determined to create a Christian commonwealth grounded on biblical principles? Or were they secular sons of the Enlightenment who hoped to banish orthodox Christianity from the public square? This Fourth of July, combatants on both sides of the culture wars will gravitate to one or the other of these extremes as they remember our nation’s birth. It’s a horrible dichotomy that demands that we choose between two equally untenable positions.
A more defensible position rejects both of these all-or-nothing claims. As Matthew L. Harris and Thomas S. Kidd observe in their anthology The Founding Fathers and the Debate Over Religion in America, “None of the Founders were atheists . . . but none of the most famous Founders were ‘evangelical’ Christians of the sort produced by the Great Awakening, either.” Many of the Founders were significantly influenced by the Enlightenment, most notably in their frequent willingness to let reason trump revelation when they seemed to be in conflict. On the other hand, as Harris and Kidd note, “hardly anyone during the revolutionary era doubted that religion, and especially moral virtue, was important to the life of the new American republic.” Citing such complexity, they conclude that any broad generalization of the Founders as either “secular” or “Christian” is problematic at best.
Thomas Jefferson was not necessarily a representative Founder in his religious views, but he did embody the complexity that Harris and Kidd point out. Since we’ll shortly be celebrating the anniversary of his handiwork–the Declaration of Independence–it makes sense to revisit a few samples of his thinking.
First, Jefferson was no atheist. In fact, he regularly made an argument for God that today we would call an appeal to “intelligent design.” Here is how Jefferson put it in an 1823 letter to John Adams:
“When we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. . . . So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”
Jefferson also welcomed the contribution that religious belief might make in promoting virtue among the American people. Jefferson, like almost all of the Founders, took for granted that a free society could not survive without virtue, and that virtue was unlikely to thrive in the absence of religious conviction. Or as Jefferson expressed the point in his book Notes on the State of Virginia:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
Jefferson praised the civic utility of religion publicly in his first inaugural address in 1801. In a lengthy paragraph listing the country’s peculiar “blessings,” the new president described the American people as
“enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”
He want on to observe that his fellow countrymen “acknowledge and adore an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”
And yet there was another side to Jefferson’s perspective on religion. While he admired a “rational” religion that promoted good works and civic virtue, he was contemptuous of much of orthodox Christianity as just so much superstition. In private correspondence, he referred to evangelical religion with a sneer, as in this 1822 letter to Thomas Cooper, a Unitarian professor that Jefferson was trying to lure to the newly-founded University of Virginia:
“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women: they have their night meetings, and praying-parties, where attended by their priests, and sometimes a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a more earthly lover.”
Jefferson’s skepticism of the Bible is also well established, notwithstanding David Barton’s tortured efforts to prove otherwise. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton insisted that Jefferson wholly accepted the gospels while suspecting the reliability of Paul’s epistles, but in reality Jefferson believed that a great deal of the gospels were invention. As he summarized in an 1820 letter to William Short,
“We find in the writings of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. first a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, & fabrications. intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”
Jefferson could easily distinguish between these two categories by subjecting them to the test of reason. “Your reason is the only oracle given you by heaven” for discerning truth, Jefferson famously counseled his teenaged nephew in 1787. A great deal of the gospels were unreasonable (the virgin birth, miracles, and the resurrection, for example), so these had to be discarded. Perhaps the greatest irrationality of all, however, was the concept of the Trinity. As he wrote to James Smith:
“[The] paradox that one is three, and three but one is so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, deceives himself. He proves also that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”
In sum, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was no atheist, nor was he committed to a wholly secular public sphere, but neither did he believe that Jesus was the Christ. So where does this leave us? Somewhere, I think, between comfortable but false extremes.