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Guest commentary: Jefferson, our least Christian president

Published July 3, 2012 2:50 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • During a recent trip to Washington, I took in two exhibits on Thomas Jefferson at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: one on slaves at Monticello and the other on the cut-and-paste version of the Gospels known as the Jefferson Bible.

In the first exhibit, I was informed that our third president likely fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. In the second, I was told that the Jefferson Bible was a "revolutionary document."

This is the sort of stuff that drives David Barton mad. Barton is an evangelical minister and the founder of WallBuilders, a "pro-family" organization dedicated, according to its website, to "presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious and constitutional foundation on which America was built." Like many of his fellow travelers on the Christian right, Barton is convinced that his heroes are under attack, and he has no intention of turning the other cheek.

In his new book, The Jefferson Lies, Barton argues that academics have spread a series of falsehoods about Jefferson — that he was a racist, a secularist and an advocate of strict church/state separation. Barton thinks he knows better. His Jefferson, who died (appropriately enough) on July 4, 1826, wasn't just an "American hero." He was an orthodox Christian, too.

Lionized by Glenn Beck and other social conservatives, Barton is a culture warrior driven by desire rather than by evidence. As a result, his writing is more "truthy" than "truthful."

To be fair, Barton is right to observe that Jefferson was no atheist. He also correctly points out that Jefferson gave money to churches, attended worship services and revered Jesus as a great moral teacher. But does that make him an "orthodox" Christian? Not by a long shot.

Jefferson called the biblical book of Revelation the "ravings of a maniac." He rejected the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth. He characterized the Trinity as "hocus-pocus phantasm." And in Bibles on display at the Smithsonian, he cut out the Resurrection. To call Jefferson a Christian is to demonstrate disdain for either history or Christianity (or both).

My aim is not to criticize Barton. It is to make sense of his many fans. Why is such a slipshod historian so widely read by so many Americans?

In our nation's capital, many Republicans and Democrats now treat their political opponents as mortal enemies at war with all that is good and godly in America. And the Supreme Court, which used to be seen as "above" politics, is under closer scrutiny than ever after a string of hotly contested 5-4 rulings. This fervent factionalism is not confined to politics and law, however. It is leeching into science and history. As musician David Byrne of the Talking Heads once put it, even facts now have a point of view.

The antidote to this partisan creep is, in my view, a dose of what I call "The American Bible." Americans have never agreed on a common creed of our public life, but we do share two things: a collection of core texts and the ritual of arguing about them. Just as Catholics come together to participate in the Mass, Americans come together to debate what these speeches, songs and stories tell us about "America" and "Americans."

This canon — running from the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech — has stirred considerable controversy. But "The American Bible" also contains a great tradition of conciliation, from George Washington's warning about "the baneful effects of the spirit of party" to John F. Kennedy's reminder that "civility is not a sign of weakness."

The greatest of these efforts to defuse our partisan passions is Jefferson's first inaugural address. Jefferson must have been tempted to use his Inauguration Day to strike back at his Federalist opponents, who during the election of 1800 — the most venomous in U.S. history — had called him the "great arch priest of Jacobinism and infidelity." And later in his presidency he would write of his desire to "sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection." In this moment, however, he opted for reconciliation.

This Fourth of July, after the parades are over, I propose we all devote a few minutes to remembering our least Christian president. Instead of reading Barton, go straight to Jefferson himself and to the words he chose to deliver on his first day as president: "Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things. ... Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all federalists."

Can somebody say amen?

Stephen Prothero is a Boston University religion professor and the author of The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation. He also writes for USA Today.