More on the Jefferson, Onuf, Gordon-Reed, & the “Christian Nation” Brouhaha

This is probably the first of what will be at least a couple additional follow up remarks to my initial thoughts regarding the latest “Christian nation” controversy.

Let me begin by stating I’m actually a bit overwhelmed (in a good way) at the response those initial thoughts generated, because that’s all they were – thoughts. It wasn’t an essay or other more formal piece of writing. Just mere thoughts assembled into a somewhat cohesive fashion. As someone “scratching and clawing” to make a name for himself I truly appreciate the notice of individuals in the field, all the more so as I don’t possess a PhD nor am I formally published or affiliated with a college or university, though I hope one day to have these things come to pass….

I commented last time how Onuf, Gordon-Reed, and Fea affirmed Thomas Jefferson desired the “teachings” of Jesus, if not Christianity itself, to be inculcated within the United States in order to bring about a “Christian nation.” I wanted to explore this idea of Jesus’s “teachings” a bit more, because this is an area of inconsistency within Jefferson’s thought. Or perhaps a more accurate way to characterize it is remark that for an individual who valued logic and reason as much as Jefferson, there is a glaring flaw with both in this instance.

When Jefferson wrote of Jesus’s “teachings” he referred to a strictly human Jesus: no divinity, no miracles (including the Resurrection). By extension, as noted by John Fea in his commentary, Jefferson also denied Biblical inspiration and anything supernatural or inexplicable in the Bible. Contrary to David Barton, Jefferson rewrote the Bible and stripped it completely of the miraculous and the inexplicable, and fashioned it into a common ethical guidebook that could have been written by a Greek pagan as much as a divinely inspired Jew.

The flaw in the logic in this otherwise logical man is the “teachings” of Jesus include the inexplicable. This is basic apologetics for Catholics, the stuff learned in many Catholic households, most Catholic high schools, and even some Catholic middle schools. The reason(s) Jefferson was blind to it (whether by choice or ignorance) requires me to read further into the sources but speculation is still fun, so here goes.

Take the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, for example. That’s a rather explicit teaching. In Matthew 26:26, Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” In Mark 14:22, Jesus says, “Take; this is my body.” In Luke 22:19 Jesus says, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” This is a teaching. Why not this teaching but others if you’re Jefferson? Jesus literally teaches to take bread, for it is his body (again, literal body – he never says “it represents,” or “it symbolizes” his body), and consume it, in remembrance of him.

Superficially I would guess this to be a reflection of Jefferson’s Enlightenment influence, and its general rejection of what we commonly associate with religion: the supernatural, the inexplicable, the divine – the very things Jefferson expunged from his Bible (admittedly this is a gross oversimplification of the Enlightenment and scholars like my former undergraduate professor Glenn Sunshine would object to my oversimplification even though they agree with my premise). However, Jefferson apparently did not feel he was rejecting religion, based on the research of Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed; he ardently felt he was a Christian. But by what authority did Jefferson claim his version of Christianity to be correct? It seems rather arbitrary. The so-called “moral teachings” of Jesus can be found in any number of pagan, other organized religious, or secular sources – why call oneself a “Christian” then? What distinguishes Christianity from these other sources are precisely the aspects Jefferson claimed not to accept, intellectually or as a matter of faith.

In the C-Span book discussion I linked in my previous post, Professor Onuf discussed how Jefferson desired to be rid of all the “interpreters” and the “intermediators” such as “priests.” Yet, was Jefferson himself not being hypercritical in his actions? Was he not acting as an “interpreter” for others? Onuf has demonstrated, I think convincingly, Jefferson was no hypocrite when it came to slavery, a frequent charge, but I find him to be one in this instance, and glaringly so. He is behaving as arbiter and pseudo-teaching authority to those who would listen to him. What is that but an “interpreter,” “intermediator,” or form of “priest”? All the more so since he distributed his Bible.

Onuf continues Jefferson further reasoned a “miracle violates nature,” and “wouldn’t it make sense to study God’s creation to better understand Him? Isn’t that a form of worship?” Onuf then says “this is the Deist position.” This very reasoning actually explains the origin of science. And this reasoning is unique to Catholicism. Unlike the Catholics, though, Jefferson simply couldn’t accept a god who intervened in human affairs and contradicted the laws of nature He set in motion. What I find personally fascinating is the juxtaposition: that two “individuals” could begin at the same starting point, yet diverge so widely at the end. This is perhaps where Jefferson most reveals his Enlightenment influence. (For the time being I am leaving the “Deism” comment be, but I suspect I will return to it whenever I get around to reading Carl Richard’s latest book.)

In arbitrarily expunging Jesus’s teachings down to that of “nice guy,” Jefferson fell into C. S. Lewis’s famous apologetic: either Jesus says who he says he is, or he’s a lunatic. And for such a rationally-oriented individual, it is remarkably odd, and contradictory, for Jefferson to opt for the “lunatic” Jesus. But then again, not for nothing is Jefferson known as the “American Sphinx” and a walking contradiction.


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