The Reinvention of Thomas Jefferson: Did This Founding Father Really Intend for the U.S. to Be a Christian Nation?

By Bernstein, R. B. | Moment, September-October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Reinvention of Thomas Jefferson: Did This Founding Father Really Intend for the U.S. to Be a Christian Nation?


Bernstein, R. B., Moment


The religious right insists that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical principles. A chief obstacle to this claim is Thomas Jefferson, the most eloquent champion among the founding fathers of strict separation of church and state. An obvious way to remove that obstacle would be to redefine Jefferson as an orthodox Christian who used government to promote the cause of Christianity. So argues the influential evangelical Christian, self-described historian and religious educator David Barton in his best-selling 2012 book The Jefferson Lies, the latest of his books pushing the "Christian nation" perspective. Barton has won praise from such prominent right-wing figures as Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck and Tea Party activists.

But The Jefferson Lies drew withering fire from historians and Jefferson scholars, in particular evangelical Christians. In August, responding to these scholars' documented critique, the Christian book publisher Thomas Nelson withdrew The Jefferson Lies from publication, justifying that rare and startling action by admitting that factual distortions pervade the book. To cite three of many examples:

* Contrary to what Barton says, Jefferson described his religious faith in 1803 to a friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] 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."

* Contrary to what Barton says, Jefferson rejected the Bible because he deemed it corrupted by priestcraft; he prepared his own version of the New Testament, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, excising all miracles from the virgin birth to the resurrection and stressing Jesus' sermons and parables.

* Contrary to what Barton says, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia as one of the world's first institutions of higher learning with no ties to any religious denomination, lacking even a professor of theology.

This tug of war over Jefferson matters because, as the George and Ira Gershwin of American thought, Jefferson wrote the words and the music for our highest ideals. Indeed, when we take Jefferson to task (for owning slaves, for example), we do so based on standards that he defined. Americans want to "get right" with Jefferson, citing him to support causes spanning the political spectrum. Was he a foe of corporations or of federal power?

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