Sunday, December 12, 2010

How Thomas Jefferson Conquered America's Religion

In a sense. From Eve Tushnet. A taste:

Thomas Jefferson’s most radical declaration of independence isn’t his most famous. In 1820 Jefferson created a simplified, reasonable version of the Bible—taking out the miracles, prophecies, claims of Jesus’ divinity, and other weirdness which offended his Deism. Kenda Creasy Dean suggests that mainstream Christianity, in virtually all of its manifestations, has been similarly bowdlerized. Instead of the life-changing, culture-challenging demands of the gospel, Dean argues, American teenagers follow a mutant creed best understood as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Almost Christian, a popularization of the results of the 2002-05 National Study of Youth and Religion, attempts to help Christian parents, youth pastors, and others who are alarmed at the shakiness and incoherence of most teens’ faith.

The content of that faith is simple and as American as a smile in an airport. The tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) include belief in a god who watches over us and orders life on earth, and whose major moral concern is that humans should be nice to one another: “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” These kids aren’t hostile to religion; who would kick such a toothless cocker spaniel? Dean argues that adolescents who were able to be articulate and expressive when discussing issues they really cared about suddenly became tongue-tied when the subject of God or religion came up, falling back on phrases such as “I would imagine [God is] a very nice guy.”

4 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Since the phenomenon is even more common in the rest of the Western world, I don't see how Jefferson has much to do with it.

In fact, much of the writing in the immediate post-Founding period [Stiles, John Marshall, Joseph Story, Jasper Adams] quite acknowledges Jefferson as a notorious infidel, and the sentiment is quite contrary to Jefferson's "new" quasi-religion.

In my view, Jefferson was quite a theological dead end [as unitarianism itself proved to be by the late 1800s].

Jim Allison has some great stuff on Story vs. Jefferson here:

http://candst.tripod.com/joestor3.htm

Pinky said...

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Just two paragraphs; but, pretty good.
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And, it got Tom's goat.
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hoo hah!
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Just having traveled by plane, I liked the line about simple smiles in an airport.
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Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

Bad history gets my goat, true. I'm not familiar with Eve Tushnet, but it seems her cachet is more biographical than merited.