Tag Archives: Declaration of Independence

WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS TWEET?

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.  The essay below was inspired by the whimsical cover of Parade magazine three years ago.]

As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the cover of Parade magazine back in 2013  featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.”  The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress.  The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version.  Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece was altered for laughs.  Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment.  For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.”  The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin.  What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”

The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it.  But then I began to think about it and I got depressed.  What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd.  The captions don’t fit the time and place.  What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age.  We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments.  [And in 2016, the presumptive Republican nominee for president tweets constantly.]

The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.

Founders and the ClassicsA book that drives home this point is The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it.  In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day.  After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.

Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.”  He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”

Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments.  Nor did the pattern end with American independence.  When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.

The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point.  Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece.  It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.

If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged.  But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word.  If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.”  After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  (That’s only 57 characters!)

And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait.  Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and  labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day.  His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.

Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.”  What a convicting truth.  I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.

JEFFERSON’S FAITH

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.

 

Founding Fathers and the Debate over Religion

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   in two days we’ll 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?”

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791.

Thomas Jefferson sat for this portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1791.

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 “acknowledg[ed] and ador[ed] 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.

WHAT’S REALLY AT STAKE IN THE “CHRISTIAN AMERICA” DEBATE

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.

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.”

Jefferson Lies

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.

WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS TWEET?

Did you see this past Sunday’s Parade magazine?  As a tip of the cap to the impending Fourth of July, the magazine’s cover featured a portion of John Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence.”  The massive (12 feet by 18 feet) canvass portrays the committee charged with drafting the declaration presenting their work to the continental congress.  The five co-authors (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) submitted their draft on June 28, and less than a week later the congress approved a considerably edited version.  Completed in 1818, Trumbull’s portrayal of the scene has been on display in the rotunda of the U. S. capitol since 1826.

A portion of "Declaration of Independence," by John Trumbull, 1818

A portion of “Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull, 1818

Parade‘s version of Trumbull’s masterpiece is altered for laughs.  Captions appear over several of the prominent figures so we will know what each was thinking in the midst of this historic moment.  For example: Concerned about his physical appearance, John Adams is complaining that oil paintings make him look fat (so “Don’t tag me,” he pleads), while Charles Thomson, the secretary of the congress, is thinking that what the new nation really needs “is a good theme song.”  The caption that most caught my attention, though, was the question appearing over Benjamin Franklin.  What the writer, philosopher, scientist, inventor, statesman and diplomat wants to know is, “Can we get this down to 140 characters?”

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence," from Parade Magazine, June 30, 2013

John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence,” from Parade Magazine, June 30, 2013

The caption is pretty clever, really, and I got a kick out of it.  But then I began to think about it and I got depressed.  What makes the Parade cover funny is that it is absurd.  The captions don’t fit the time and place.  What makes the Parade cover depressing, in my opinion, is that the captions do fit perfectly in our own day and age.  We live in an age of slogans and bumper stickers, 8-second sound bites and tw0-minute responses in tightly-scripted debates–a time in which not only movie stars and professional athletes but also congressmen and senators communicate with the public in 140-character increments.

The Founders were realistic statesmen who recognized the need to rally popular support for the cause of independence, but they were also students of history, theology, philosophy, and classical literature, intellectuals more than politicians who worked to craft intellectually formidable arguments for the cause for which they were risking their lives.

Founders and the ClassicsOne of my “summer bench books” this year has been The Founders and the Classics, by Professor Carl J. Richard, and I highly recommend it.  In his opening chapter, Richard reminds us of how well educated the Founders typically were for their day.  After preparatory training in grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, they frequently went on to college studies that focused primarily, almost exclusively on classical literature and languages.

Presbyterian John Witherspoon (president of Princeton and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence) declared that such subjects were essential “to fit young men for serving their country in public stations.”  He knew whereof he spoke, inasmuch as his graduates would include “ten cabinet officers, thirty-nine congressmen, twenty-one senators, twelve governors, thirty judges (including three supreme court justices), and fifty state legislators.”

Given this educational and cultural context, it is small wonder that, as the American Revolution unfolded, both patriots and loyalists peppered their political arguments with classical allusions and historical arguments.  Nor did the pattern end with American independence.  When the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 produced a new proposed Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, both supporters and opponents marshaled complex, erudite, and lengthy arguments for their positions.

The so-called Federalist Papers (much cited but seldom read today) are a case in point.  Open their pages and read as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to sway political momentum with references–repeated references– to the “Amphictyonic League” of 4th century B. C. Greece.  It would be hard to fit their argument into a thirty-second ad. To read the Federalist essays today is to underscore the superficial sloganeering that now passes for substantive political argument.

If this sounds like a rant I can only plead guilty as charged.  But let me end by giving Benjamin Franklin the last word.  If any of the Founders would have embraced social media, Franklin would get my vote as “the Founder Most Likely to Tweet.”  After all, he built much of his early public prominence on his popular Poor Richard’s Almanack with its store of pithy aphorisms like “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  (That’s only 57 characters!)

And yet Franklin was as deeply committed to intellectually substantive exchange as the far better educated statesmen who appear in Trumbull’s portrait.  Although he had only a couple of years of formal schooling, he read deeply (took up Plutarch before age 12) and  labored assiduously to make himself an effective communicator, seeking to fine-tune his prose by immersing himself in the best English writers of his day.  His appreciation for the life of the mind are further reflected in his role in founding the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as in his decision to retell the story of his life in a lengthy autobiography, a work that even still commands a world-wide readership.

Litera scripta manet, Franklin observed in his memoir–“the written word remains.”  What a convicting truth.  I only wish it didn’t apply to tweets.

RETHINKING RIGHTS: FINAL “FINAL THOUGHTS” ON THE PRESIDENT’S INAUGURAL

Well, it’s been a good two weeks since I last posted, and that might as well be two years from the perspective of perpetual connectivity that defines the blogosphere.  Sorry about that.  We’re running a job search for a new U. S. historian at Wheaton, and that has been tremendously time consuming. We’re also addressing last-minute logistics for a distinguished visiting lecturer, Clemson University Professor Vernon Burton, who will be on campus next week delivering two public addresses pertaining to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  These are good tasks to have, but they have absorbed most of my extra time and energy.

I know that I promised in my last post that I was through with President Obama’s inaugural address, but it turns out I was wrong.  (My students will tell you that I have a habit of offering multiple “final” points in my lectures, repeatedly raising and then dashing their hopes of getting out of class early.)  One of the axioms that I bring to my teaching is that an effective way to stretch the mind is to challenge the heart.  This is because the kind of thinking that has the potential to be truly transformative comes most naturally when something we feel deeply about is called into question.  One of my students put it this way in a recent reflection: “In my own historical study I have found that the issues that carry an emotional component are the ones that I study the best. . . . I pour so much more time and energy and thought into a subject that pulls at my heartstrings.”

I mention this because I sense that in a previous post I struck a nerve with a few readers.  (See “The Rhetoric of the President’s Address—Digging More Deeply.”)  We are so deeply immersed in our contemporary “rights” culture that it is hard for us to imagine an alternative.  We take for granted that we have inalienable natural rights, and our main argument with the unbelieving culture around us involves the question of where those rights come from.  This puts us in the ironic position of citing the Deist son of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, to remind the culture that our rights are not suspended in a vacuum, but that they have been given us by our Creator.

One of the key principles in thinking historically is remembering the crucial importance of context.  We engage the past in search of wisdom for the present, but if we are to understand rightly what the past has to say to us, we first need to understand the ideas that we encounter in their historical context.

Jefferson’s reference to “inalienable rights” that include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” comes almost verbatim from the late-seventeenth-century political philosopher John Locke.  Scholars disagree about Locke’s private religious beliefs, but we can agree that much of Locke’s public argument contradicted orthodox Christian doctrine.  Most notably, Locke overtly denied Paul’s teaching in Romans 2 that God has inscribed His law in our hearts.  God has given us no conscience or innate sense of right and wrong, Locke argued.  Our primary gift from God at birth is the faculty of reason, and He intends for us to rely on reason in determining how we are to treat one another.

According to Locke, the process of discovering the “law of nature” and the inalienable rights that ensue is a process of applying reason to experience.  It is also, at its heart, a process of the rational pursuit of self-interest.  By nature, none of us wants to be killed, or enslaved, or have our property stolen, Locke theorized, and over time we logically conclude that one of the ways we protect ourselves from such a fate is to refrain from killing, enslaving, and stealing the property of others.  If most individuals exercise such self-control, the societies we form will be societies in which we are more likely to get what we want, which is actually a pretty good definition of “right” as Americans currently employ the term.  (I am reminded of historian Robert Wiebe’s definition of “right” in his book Self-Rule: that “delightful euphemism for ‘what I want.’”)

One of the commentators to my earlier post acknowledged that the language of “rights” is not prevalent in the Bible but asked if I was trying to argue that anything not expressly spelled out in scripture was, by definition, unchristian.  Not at all.  My point is simply that we have not thought very deeply about the concept of rights, and that because ideas come to us embedded in historical contexts, we ignore those contexts at our peril.  If we thought more deeply about the context of Jefferson’s assertion, we might understand more readily how it is that the principles of the Declaration have come to justify a radically individualistic vision in which the autonomous individual is the constituent element of society and all other social groups (family, church, community) must defer to the individual and the paternalistic state that protects him.

Thinking Christianly about the Declaration, we might conclude that Jefferson’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” is true in certain respects but not in all.  Here let me end by quoting at length from Christian political scientist James Stoner’s 2005 essay “Is there a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”  According to Stoner, the “self-evident truths” in the Declaration

do not give an adequate account of the family, the fundamental institution of social life. . . . The family is built not around equality, but around the inequality of parent and child.  Precisely the most basic meaning of Jefferson’s statement of equality—that no man is the natural ruler or the natural subject of another—is not true of this relation, for the parents are surely the natural rulers of their dependent children.  [Beyond this,] the family is first and foremost not about rights, but about duties; even the right of children to care and education is abstract and vague compared to the duties of parents to provide and instruct and the duty of children to obey and learn. . . . [Furthermore,] the end of the family is only incidentally the security of rights; it is principally provision and nurture in an environment formed by love.

Much food for thought here.