Friday, July 11, 2008

Jefferson wasn't a Deist, OK?

OK, the Christian Nation types annoy me. Jonathan Rowe---my sponsor onto this blog---can always find me a ready ally against such religionist ignorance, which repeats a lot of phony quotes from the 1800s that tried to turn the Founding Fathers into Jerry Falwells. It wasn't that kind of party.

But at least the phony quotes seemed "real" when people like high school teacher David Barton rediscovered them. What's the secular Left's excuse?

So I'm reading the religion writer for the LA Times on the "Jefferson Bible," where the 3rd president cut out all the miracles and stuff and made his own book of Jesus' wisdom. Pretty good article. But then Louis Sahagun wrote:

Like many other upper-class, educated citizens of the new republic, including George Washington, Jefferson was a deist.

Deists differed from traditional Christians by rejecting miraculous occurrences and prophecies and embracing the notion of a well-ordered universe created by a God who withdrew into detached transcendence.

That would be an accurate description of deism, whose God resembled Aristotle's. The Cosmic Watchmaker makes a watch--that's the universe, and us---and then moves on to other things. Unfortunately for the truth, Sahagun repeats the common secular received wisdom which is no less ignorant than the Christian Nation crowd's:

See, Thomas Jefferson was no "deist." His God was no cosmic watchmaker; he was active in the affairs of men [as was Washington's, but that's another story]. On slavery, Jefferson wrote:

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!” —Notes on the State of Virginia [1785]

Possible or probable that God would punish America for slavery, for offending the natural law of individual freedom.

I wrote to Mr. Sahagun with this objection, even assuring him I was no Christian Nationist. And I mentioned that Jefferson's words weren't terribly hard to find, in fact they've been carved in stone:

I also noted that the Jefferson Bible left in The Lord's Prayer, which is probative, because when your watch breaks, you don't pray to Timex [although you might curse it].

So far---and it's been almost a week now---no reply from Mr. Sahagun. I suggested he owes a duty to his readers to investigate the matter further, but so far, he's expressed no inclination to do so.

The Christian Nationists at least have some widely-circulated fake quotes from the 19th century to make them think that their theory of the Founding is true. Smart and unbenighted folks like Mr. Sahagun have no damn excuse, and not only that, they get paid to spread their ignorance.

Jeez. I hope folks will remember the glass houses thing or the one about having a mote in your eye. At least one of them is still in the Jefferson Bible.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Great post. Glad to have you on board.

bpabbott said...

"Like many other upper-class, educated citizens of the new republic, including George Washington, Jefferson was a deist."

Personally, I find that such statements to be vain. The individual is trying to project his philosophy upon those who many have great respect and admiration for.

The value of the founders was not their philosophy, but their actions, and the principles they embodied in our Constitution.

Regarding Jefferson, I've always view him as a man who desired that others think and reason for themselves. I'm uncertain how he'd feel about being quoted as an authority upon how we should conduct ourselves.

... in any event, that's my opinion and I'm sticking it ;-)

p.s. "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone. -- Thomas Jefferson"

Brad Hart said...

Glad to have you Mr. Van Dyke. Excellent post.

I agree for the most part with your assessment of Jefferson. To call him a true deist -- though I believe he was closer to deism than Washington, Madison, etc. -- is ridiculous. The man clearly believed in a God, though his personal views on this God were very different than his fellow Christians of orthodox persuasion.

For me, I like to think of Jefferson as a restorationist. After all, he believed that the Christian religion had strayed from its original purity and that organized religion was nothing but a shell of its former glory.

-Jefferson loved Jesus but not Christianity.

-Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation.

-Jefferson believed in reason and not faith.

-Jefferson defended the moral doctrines of Jesus, but combated the pious rules of orthodox Christianity.

-Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots.

By embracing a personal creed like this, Jefferson is clearly not a candidate for deism. At the same time is obviously not a devout orthodox Christian. So what is he? Again, I would argue that the man was a passionate RESTORATIONIST, who believed that the doctrine of Christ was the best the world had ever seen, but had been polluted over the nearly 2000 years since his death.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You might want to check out this comment.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Such an angry fellow.

I don't think he successfully talked away Jefferson's invocation of "supernatural interference." Facts are stubborn things.

Tom Van Dyke said...

A Restorationist, Brad? I wouldn't even go that far. He wouldn't even fit into the early Church of say, 100 AD.

Brad Hart said...

A lot of other Restorationists wouldn't fit with the early church either. I think what I mean by restorationist is that Jefferson saw the current state of Christianity to be a sham or a shell of its former glory. The whole purpose behind his assembling his own Bible was to uncover the few pearls of truth that he felt had not been tarnished.

I don't mean that Jefferson should be compared to other early Christians. You are right when you say that he fits very poorly with that group.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think that Jefferson THOUGHT he was a Restorationist, but whether his opinions of the early Christianity were accurate, is another matter entirely.

dave b said...

Your whole spiel merely demonstrates that you're ignorant of the history of Deism. There are two types: Classical English Deism and French Deism. Classical English Deism, the sort followed by the founding fathers, believed in providence and even in reward and punishment in an afterlife. French Deism following Voltaire is the watchmaker stuff, God creates the world and disappears. Crack a book man.