Secularists for Jesus. (Excerpt)

Article excerpt

"Jefferson, Emerson, and Jesus by Richard Wightman Fox, in Raritan (Fall 2002), Rutgers Univ, 31 Mine St., New Brunswick, N.J. 08903.

What a strange dance the religious and the secular do in America! "Just as religious faith has been molded by secular commitments, so secular faith has been shaped by religious loyalties," observes Fox, a historian at the University of Southern California. A prominent case in point: the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson and the Transcendentalist poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In the early 19th century, when Baptist and Methodist evangelism was at flood tide, these two leading anti-clerical secularizers claimed, in effect, that they were only following in the footsteps of someone greater--Jesus himself, preeminent sage and teacher.

"I am a Christian," Jefferson (1743-1826) wrote during his first term as president, "in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to him every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other."

Running for reelection in 1804, and "again under attack as a French-leaning infidel," says Fox, "he let friends circulate the news that he wished to ground the republic upon the wisdom of Jesus-purged of the supernatural accretions that bad piled up over the centuries of 'mystery-mongering' by the churches. …