Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Christopher Hitchens Strikes Out on Thomas Jefferson

Here at American Creation we have done a good job (I believe) of putting a lot of the rhetoric of the culture wars in check. When pseudo-historians like David Barton or Howard Zinn got out of hand, we have been quick to point out the error of their ways and help stir the ship of America's founding religion back on the right course. This is one of the many reasons that I love American Creation so much. One of our jobs, if I may be so bold, is to serve as the umpire of the culture wars, calling balls, strikes and outs as best as we can see them, and even on occasion, throwing certain players and coaches out of the game for their blatant disregard for the game.

And today, I believe we have found another batter, who despite his massive swing and impressive batting average, has whiffed on a pitch that he promised to take yard. In one of his last works of mortality, Christopher Hitchens, the Late, great intellectual and atheist extraordinaire, elected to stand in the box and take a few swings at the religious legacy of one Thomas Jefferson. In his 2009 biography on Jefferson, Hitchens claimed that he wanted to present a more nuanced view of his subject than is usually found in the works of Jefferson critics and worshipers. Despite this claim, Hitchens' work quickly diverts from his supposed path of objectivity and travels head-on into an inevitable collision with modern pop-culture, thus rendering the work to be of little historical value. Aside from its strange conclusions on Jefferson's relationships with his mother and with Meriwhether Lewis, not to mention its lack of historical perspective on slavery, Indians, etc., Hitchens' book makes some astonishing claims in the very department that Hitchens loves/hates most: religion.

Right from the start, it becomes very obvious that Hitchens is attempting to "claim" Jefferson for the atheist camp more than he is trying to let Jefferson speak for himself. Hitchens somehow feels qualified to read between the lines of Jefferson's public and private declarations on religion, which affords him the ability to claim atheism where no atheism is to be had. For example, when discussing the final days of Jefferson's life, Hitchens writes:

As his days began to wane, Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he face the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much as to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgement if only because of the prudence he was compelled to reserve during his political life(Pp. 182).
In other words, Hitchens says, "Jefferson was probably an atheist but he couldn't admit it, due to his political duties."

And though it is true that Jefferson was far from being a Christian in any traditional way, to claim that Jefferson invoked religion purely for political reasons is reading between the lines. Virtually everything that Jefferson ever wrote on his personal religious beliefs reveal a private devotion to a providential god of nature, not a rejection of deity. So, while Hitchens was right to say that we must "reserve judgement" on Jefferson's religion, he could have done without the followup lines on political prudence being the exclusive reasons behind Jefferson's approval of religion.

***Strike 1***

Along with his weak attempt at portraying Thomas Jefferson as a closet atheist, Hitchens also fumbles the ball on his interpretation of deism. For Hitchens, deism of the 18th century was a strict belief in the absence of God from human affairs. No product of the Enlightenment could believe in any form of an intervening providential God and claim deism. This later proves problematic for Hitchens when he tries to classify Jefferson's public profession of faith (because he was privately an atheist) as deism, since Jefferson himself seemed to believe in a god who participated in human affairs:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever(Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18).

And finally, Hitchens takes his final hack of the bat when he incorrectly interprets Jefferson's motives for rewriting the Bible to his own liking. Hitchens claims that Jefferson's creation of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was meant to "[Throw] away all of the superfluous, ridiculous and devotional parts" of the Bible, and expunge "all mentions of angels, miracles and the resurrection" all in an effort to to separate "reason from faith." And though it is true that Jefferson removed many of the New Testament miracles, not all of the "ridiculous and devotional parts" were taken out. For example, Jefferson's "Bible" retains Jesus' emphasis on prayer, along with the blessings that come as a result. Jefferson's Bible also retains many of the teachings on the Father and the Holy Ghost, and their role(s) in assisting mankind. And perhaps most striking, Jefferson's Bible retains the belief that Jesus Christ himself will one day return to earth to judge mankind.

So much for the Jefferson Bible doing away with "all ridiculous and devotional parts." (Hat tip: M. DeForrest).

STRIKE 3. You're OUT!!!***

In summation, though Hitchens was a brilliant speaker, debater, writer and intellectual, he was not a historian. His biography (which really shouldn't even be considered a real biography but more of a "treatment") of Jefferson does not add much to the historiography of one of America's greatest statesmen. Regardless of this fact, Hitchens' book, like so many others from fellow culture warriors on both sides, is likely to influence many who regard history as the pursuit of "presentist" agendas mingled with the past. For me the book is pretty much on an equal footing with anything written by David Barton, Peter Lillback or Howard Zinn: on demand, fast food, quick fix, feel good, pill-that-numbs-the-pain, diluted commentary, camouflaged as history.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, Brad, and I adored Christopher Hitchens. For the occasions he was brilliant, I forgave the ones where he missed the larger truth [which was often], and always read him first when my Atlantic came every month.

I have always been a lover of truth more than a hater of error. Which is why I value David Barton's stumblings onto the truth more than I hate his sloppiness [if not dishonesty]. I realize I'm getting into a commercial here for my POV, but I cannot think of a criticism of Barton that I have not seen applied to Hitchens, and fairly.

I do not adore Barton by any means, Hitchens, I sure did. But I had to say that, having read both.

Like many who aren't versed in religious language and tradition, I think that the secular Hitchens just couldn't catch the religious echoes in Jefferson's work. In the very passage you [and Hitchens] quote, Brad, on liberty and slavery, Jefferson continues that God's justice may become probable by "supernatural interference!"

Does Hitchens deal with that?

Brad, you write:

And perhaps most striking, Jefferson's Bible retains the belief that Jesus Christ himself will one day return to earth to judge mankind.

This I did not know. I was surprised enough that the "Jefferson Bible" leaves in Jesus' prayer, the Our Father. Whatcha got here?

Thx for the post, Brad. Well done.

jimmiraybob said...

I own both Hitchen's book and the most recent printing of Jefferson's Bible and both are setting in the to-read section of the shelf. I've been reluctant to read Hitchens because of the reasons that you emphasize, and as a non-theist you might say he's batting for the home team, and I've wanted to have more background before I tackled The Life and Morals. Given that these are imminent reads I appreciate the post.

As someone living in a big baseball town, I've watched plate calls for Bob Gibson to the 2012 World Champs with some regularity and great enthusiasm. For now I'll only say that some of your called strikes can be reviewed and may be in the zone more than out of the zone - so, I'm not saying the call was wrong, just close.

For me it's not so much what Jefferson believed at any point in his life but the intellectual journey he took to get there. Clearly, by 1820 when he wrote William Short, he'd probably best be described as an agnostic theist leaning toward deism with something of an Arianesque affection for Jesus' wisdom and morals and an affinity for what he termed "primitive Christianity." Not very succinct but maybe twitterable.

But, Jesus did not form Jefferson's entire worldview when it came to the development of his faith or ethical/moral outlook. There were the classical pagan Greek and Roman authors as well as later Unitarian and Universalist and acknowledged Deist writers.

His swing toward a belief in a deity appears to be along a creationist line - the appearance of benevolent creation (see Deity in the Jefferson Cyclopedia).

As has been said here often on the front pages, no matter how you view Jefferson's religious faith it's certainly not orthodox by the standards of his time or certainly ours. [You don't have to swing the bat far to find references by professing Christians today that Obama is a Muslim, a Deist and/or an atheist (possibly the AntiChrist) and possibly all of the above - the closest to the 1803 election that I've lived through.]

Thanks for the review. I'll keep it in mind if I ever manage to get these books off the shelf. And, with Barton's The Jefferson Lies coming out soon I'm feeling the itch.

PS RE: "fumbles the ball"? - too footballesque for a baseball theme (perhaps, boots the ball):)

jimmiraybob said...

Jefferson continues that God's justice may become probable by "supernatural interference!"

I decided to read Forrest Church's introduction to The Jefferson Bible (Beacon Press, 1989) and came across a quoted letter to Van der Kemp (no date given),

"While this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism;...

This is almost identical to the content of a letter to William Short (April 13, 1820).

Both of the letters are written by Jefferson as related to his efforts to produce the JB.

The Notes were written in 1781-82 by Jefferson as a response to questions posed by the marquis de Barbé-Marbois, a French politician-statesman. Jefferson obviously knew that his reply to the queries would be public on both sides of the ocean and particularly in France, a traditional Catholic nation, and in the states where the religion tended to the "particular" - not Catholic.

Given Jefferson's own early role as politician-statesman when the Notes were written it's possible he had some affinity for supernatural intervention or that he was just using rhetorical/religious language that would be pleasing to the reader(s) and convey a more powerful sense.

from my seats, in 1781-82 the ball might have caught the strike zone on this but by 1820 it looks like it would have been high and outside.

Michael Heath said...

Brad Hart writes: Hitchens' book, like so many others from fellow culture warriors on both sides, is likely to influence many who regard history as the pursuit of "presentist" agendas mingled with the past.

I haven't observed Mr. Hitchens getting any traction in the Culture War with this book. I also observed the first ones to come out and castigate him for his false claims were people engaged in the culture wars who stood on the side of fact and optimal process.

Do you have any reference sites on who relies on Hitchens' false claims regarding American history like we see from Christianists who lap up David Barton's work? E.g., Fox News, AM conservative talk radio, many conservative Christian churches, and conservative viral emails.

Unknown said...

Hitchens notwithstanding, Thomas Jefferson's blog will enlighten you. Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of subjects, including religion. Read the blog at

Phil Johnson said...

I need some clarification on your use of Presentist in your blog.
Here's what I get on the 'Net:


▸ noun: a theologian who believes that the Scripture prophecies of the Apocalypse (as in the Book of Revelations) are being fulfilled at the present time