By ANNETTE GORDON-REED and PETER S. ONUF, New York Times (July 4)
[original article contains links]
image from article
It was an article of Thomas Jefferson’s faith that no government should interfere in
anyone’s private religious beliefs. A passionate student of history, Jefferson knew
that religious struggles through the ages had caused “rivers of blood” to flow all over
the world [JB emphasis].
The blood is still flowing. News of sectarian violence reaches us daily from
across the globe, bringing us unimaginably horrific and mind-numbing images. One
of Jefferson’s most fervent hopes was that Americans would be spared this carnage,
and he did his best to set us on that path. It’s worth pausing, this Fourth of July, to
ponder this facet of Jefferson’s deep wisdom, and how well we’ve lived up to it.
Jefferson believed the best way to ensure that both peace and religious liberty
could flourish would be to educate citizens to avoid violent disagreements over
trivial doctrinal distinctions through a constitutional regime that prevented
government from favoring one set of religious beliefs over another.
He discovered how hard it was to divorce religion from politics during his bid
for the presidency in 1800. He had what today we’d call “a religion problem.” By the
mid-1790s, he had developed a reputation as a faithless philosopher, even an atheist,
certainly not a Christian. This was a grave matter, for religious beliefs then, as now,
are often conflated with character. Nervous New Englanders and his enemies in the
Federalist Party took this notion to heart; rumors spread that Jefferson planned to
outlaw the Bible.
On his watch, they said, incest and adultery would run rampant. He betrayed
his true sentiments, they claimed, by his ardent support of the French Revolution,
which sought to eradicate religion in France. Their talking point was clear:
Jefferson’s atheism disqualified him from the presidency.
But Jefferson was no atheist. As a young man, he embraced the tenets of “natural
religion,” or deism, rejecting conventional Christianity and any use of religious
dogma as a tool to control people. As he aged, however, Jefferson undertook a
spiritual quest that focused his attention intensively on the New Testament.
Through Bible study this self-professed “primitive Christian” sought to hear
Jesus’ original, uncorrupted voice, imagining himself in his teacher’s presence. Jesus
preached to the “family of man,” anticipating the humane and cosmopolitan
precepts of the enlightened age that Jefferson was convinced would inevitably arrive.
He adhered to the “philosophy” of Jesus while rejecting “mystifications” that
offended his steadfast belief in science and were, in his view, the chief cause of
Still, Jefferson’s refusal to talk about his religious beliefs fueled suspicions. He
insisted that his religious faith was nobody’s business but his own.
In fact, he knew that people were not ready to hear his unorthodox views. But he
prepared for the day when they would be, for he believed that religion, stripped of
the supernatural, should always be an integral part of American society. He even
created a guidebook, of sorts.
In 1804, Jefferson took a razor to English, French, Latin and Greek versions of
the New Testament to construct a clear account of Jesus’ original, uncorrupted
teachings. Pressed by public business, he didn’t complete his painstakingly executed
“Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” until retirement. Even then, Jefferson did not
want to publicize his project — or even share it with his family. But he was confident
that enlightened republicans and conscientious Christians could, and must, agree on
the fundamental ethical precepts he gleaned from the Bible.
Far from being an atheist, Jefferson was a precocious advocate of what was later
called “civil religion,” the moral foundation of a truly free and united people.
[JB emphasis/underlining] This is how American Christians understood him a century after
he began editing the Bible. In 1904, Congress had the Government Printing Office
issue 9,000 copies of the “Jefferson Bible” for distribution among senators and
It’s a good bet that most devout Christians now would be appalled by Congress’s
action, and that today’s Congress would never consider publishing it. The religious
faithful who opposed Jefferson would have been even more scandalized by his effort
to “improve” the Bible — and his vision of a time when every “thinking” person
would be a Unitarian. They were right to suspect that the Sage of Monticello had
designs on America’s religious future, but wrong about the elements of his designs.
Fulfilling Jefferson’s enlightened vision has not been easy. Throughout history,
we Americans have waged religious battles of our own, mainly through legislation
that regulated citizens’ behavior on the basis of moral values that were religious ones
in disguise. Although the Constitution prohibits religious tests for office, it is hard to
imagine how a candidate who professed to have no religious beliefs could find favor.
Jefferson’s hopes have not yet been realized. The dispiriting wave of religionbased
violence abroad, and sometimes violent flare-ups here over issues like abortion and
L.B.G.T.Q. rights, make Jefferson’s idealistic vision of American civil religion, the
shared faith of a free people, all the more attractive.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law and history at Harvard, and Peter S. Onuf, an
emeritus professor of history at the University of Virginia, are the authors of “‘Most
Blessed of the Patriarchs’: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.”