Thursday, May 17, 2012

Was Jefferson a conservative? Not in matters of religion

There is a considerable ongoing debate on the Right side of the blogosphere about whether Thomas Jefferson should be included within the ranks of conservative thinkers.  One aspect of the discussion regards Jefferson's religious views. And any inspection of Jefferson's views on religion reveal a man who was a radical and not a traditionalist -- somebody who was deeply and fundamentally alienated not only from orthodox, creedal Christianity in any of its historic variants (Protestant, Catholic and eastern Orthodox) but also from Judaism. No where is this more evident than in his letters to various correspondents. Those who would argue that Jefferson held to traditional or otherwise orthodox views regarding either Judaism or Christianity need to be able to explain passages like the following:
His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses.  That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.  Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration.  Moses ad either not believed in a a future state of existence, or had not thought it essentially to be explicitly taught to his people.  Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision.  Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries, and observances of no effect toward producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance.  The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit toward other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence.  The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous.  Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion; and a step to right or left might place him within the grasp of the priests of the superstition, a blood-thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.  They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law.  He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplication of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons, as sufficient, ad homines, at least.  That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.  But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible.  The whole religion of the Jew, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration.  The fumes of the most disorded [sic] imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications from the Deity; and as it could not but happen that in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only persevered their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatized from them.  Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order.  This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon. 
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, Aug. 4, 1820, reprinted in In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, edited by Norman Cousins (Harper & Brothers: 1958), pgs. 153-154.


jimmiraybob said...

I think that it would help first to have an agreed upon definition of conservative. Si? No?

Does a conservative have to be bound to strict compliance with contemporary orthodoxy? A Jesus of Nazareth might think that TJ comes pretty close to conserving the core moral principles that he espoused. But, I suppose, that just kicks the can back a couple of millenia and begs for the question to be asked, was Jesus of Nazareth a conservative.

Phil Johnson said...

With a question like that, you gotta be kidding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil [sic]."

Mt 5:17 KJV