Thursday, January 13, 2005


Jefferson's Jesus Nation

I've just started reading Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. I was going to wait until finishing it to make any comments, but the first chapter is relevant to a thread on this recent post at In the Agora. There you will find the latest installment of a perennial debate about what to call Thomas Jefferson -- an atheist? a deist? a Unitarian? a freethinker? a Christian? The debate, of course, is connected to the perennial debate about whether the United States is a "Christian nation."

Even if a nation could be Christian (and personally, I do not believe that particular noun can be modified by that particular adjective), profiling the religious beliefs of Founding Fathers would be more or less irrelevant to determining whether this one is. Many members of the Religious Right would bristle at the following arguments: Jefferson was a racist, therefore this is a racist nation; Jefferson was a man, therefore this is a masculine nation. But many participants in the debate on church-state separation accept arguments of the same basic form: Jefferson was a Christian, therefore this is a Christian nation; or Jefferson was not a believer, so this is a secular nation. Suffice it to say that I think settling the issue of how religion fits in the public sphere of a liberal democracy is too complex to be settled by a tug-of-war over individual Founding Fathers.

Prothero's book helpfully brackets the "Christian nation" question in the introduction. Instead, Prothero sets out to understand how America became a "Jesus nation" (a phrase that I like somewhat better because it sets two nouns at odds, as if to testify even grammatically that these two things do not mix well). Whatever one thinks about the "Christian nation" question, it is undeniable that Americans of all stripes have been obsessed throughout our history with Jesus. What Prothero proposes to show, in fact, is that Americans have frequently used their various interpretations of Jesus, whether historical or theological, as critical tools against "Christianity."
Jesus became a major personality in the United States because of the ability of religious insiders to make him culturally inescapable. He became a national icon because outsiders have always felt free to interpret him in their own fashion. To put it another way, while Christian insiders have had the authority to dictate that others interpret Jesus, they have not had the authority to dictate how these others would do so. In the United States, thinkers from Frederick Douglass and Rabbi Stephen Wise to Swami Yogananda and Malcolm X have boldly distinguished between the religion of Christianity and the religion of Jesus. And while they have rejected the former, they have embraced the latter as their own. ... The vast majority of U.S. citizens today are committed Christians. Yet no one group has an interpretive monopoly. Everyone is free to understand Jesus in his or her own way. And Americans have exercised that freedom with wild abandon. [p. 16]
I'm not sure whether I'll agree with all the points Prothero makes by the end of the book, but here's why his first chapter is relevant to the question of Jefferson's religious beliefs. In Chapter 1, "Enlightened Sage," Prothero presents Jefferson as one of the first in a long line of Americans (culminating, Prothero says, with the Jesus Seminarians of the 1990s) who attempted to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

This was why Jefferson made his famous redactions of the gospels, first in an essay called "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth" (no longer extant), and then in a second edition called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." (Interestingly, Prothero says that the first edition, which became the Q gospel, so to speak, for the second, took Jefferson only two or three evenings of leisure time to complete. I wonder what he would make of our putting so much weight on the text now.)

Jefferson called the first essay a "precious morsel of ethics." This was how he viewed Jesus, above all: as a great ethicist. His intent in editing the gospels was actually not primarily to expunge it of miracles (though of course he would have done that, too, given his deistic leanings), but to create a syllabus of Jesus's ethics, which stood opposed in Jefferson's mind to the metaphysical and theological knots that American divines of his day excelled at creating.

Here's Prothero's summary:
After he completed "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth," Jefferson claimed in correspondence with a friend that his Bible demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian: "It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." Earlier he had told Benjamin Rush, "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other." Whether Jefferson really was a Christian has been much debated, both in his time and in ours. Over the last two hundred years, Jefferson has been called an atheist and an infidel, a theist and a Deist, a Unitarian and an Anglican, an Epicurean and a secular humanist. In fact, the list of historical Jeffersons is nearly as long (and creative) as the list of historical Jesuses.

What is most clear about Jefferson's faith is what he was not, and what he was not was a traditional Christian [my emphasis]. Jefferson unequivocally rejected the Nicene Creed, which has defined orthodoxy for the overwhelming majority of Christians since 381, as well as the Council of Chalcedon (451) formula of Jesus as "truly God and truly man." He sneered at Calvinist verities such as predestination, which throughout his political career dominated American religious thought, and was particularly contemptuous of the doctrine of the Trinity ("mere Abracadabra" and "hocus-pocus phantasm," he said, distinguishable from paganism "only by being more unintelligible.") [p. 26]
If we really wanted to figure out what Jefferson believed, this would be a good start to a subtler account. But what is clear even from this start is that Jefferson's ideas about Jesus were "Christian" only in a highly qualified sense. What is even clearer is that Jefferson intended his Jesus to stand in judgment against Christianity. It is important that he underlined his status as a "real" Christian. He was not claiming Christian faith in such statements, but was (as many Americans subsequently have) attempting to evacuate the term and fill it with new meaning. And, again like many subsequent Americans, he wanted to claim that this new meaning of Christian was the original, unadulterated one. Jefferson's new/old definition of Christian was basically "a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."

Perhaps the real shame is that this critical edge to Jefferson gets lost in the shuffle of labeling him. His whole point was to recoil from the label "Christian" and get back to the ethical germ of Jesus's teachings. How well he succeeded in doing that is another question entirely. But whether he was a deist or a Unitarian or an atheist, one thing at least is clear: the attempt of contemporary Christians to label him "Christian" on the basis of his metaphysical and ontological views about the "Supreme Being," instead of by assessing his adherence to the "doctrines of Jesus," must have him rolling in his grave. For this is the very confusion his revised gospels were designed to clarify.

[P.S. I've also written more on Jesus, Jefferson, and Prothero, and I've made minor revisions to this post.]

Collective Improvisation:

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