April 2, 2010

The Myth, part I

It never fails. Each time some court issues a decision restricting religious intrusion into the schools or into government affairs, newspapers flood with editorials, articles, and letters protesting the ruling. “We are a Christian Nation,” they shout. “This is the will of the people,” they cry.
This view is contrary to history and demonstrably contrary to the Founders intent. The primary Founders were deists, not Christian, and their intent in forming this Constitutional Republic was to ensure the minority was protected from the majority, and that church and state remain forever separate.
The Infidel from Virginia
Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the primary architect of our Constitutional Republic, and he was a prolific writer. In an 1814 letter to Horatio Spafford, he wrote, "In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes."[1]
In a letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith, he stated, "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest"[2]
In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote, "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise."[3]
And in another letter to Adams, Jefferson opined, "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."[4]
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, "There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."[5]
Jefferson considered the Christian bible to be a work of fiction, and even penned his own version of the New Testament, called The Jefferson Bible. In it he ignored the concept of virgin birth, eliminated all miracles and ended the book with the burial of Jesus… sans resurrection.
This was scandalous to colonial Christians, but perfectly sensible to the majority of the early American population, who were Deists. If such were done today, the author could scarcely hope to aspire to high political office, yet Jefferson was elected President of the United States.
Even with this knowledge, fundamentalists today still try to cast Jefferson in the mold of a Bible believing Christian, or, as is the case with the Texas State Board of Education, remove Jefferson from the minds of the people by altering schoolbook curriculum. Historical revisionists do this because Jefferson was just too important in the formation of our nation to let his real beliefs be known… if they hope to sell the Christian Nation myth to the public.
But, if Jefferson were a fellow believer, would the Christian clergy of that era have worked so hard to disparage his character and deny him the presidency? Then as now, the religious issue was dragged out, Christian soldiers mobilized, the flames of intolerance stoked, and Jefferson painted as evil. Clergymen threatened their flocks with all manner of damnation if they should vote for the “infidel from Virginia.”[6]
Sound Familiar?
Dutch Reformed minister William Linn from New York City was one of these. In a pamphlet titled Serious Considerations on the Election of a President, Linn asked his flock “Will you, then, my fellow-citizens, with all this evidence... vote for Mr. Jefferson?... As to myself, were Mr. Jefferson connected with me by the nearest ties of blood, and did I owe him a thousand obligations, I would not, and could not vote for him. No; sooner than stretch forth my hand to place him at the head of the nation. Let mine arms fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone." [7]
This kind of campaigning so incensed Jefferson that in the heat of the presidential campaign of 1800, he wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he angrily commented, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
That statement is inscribed on Jefferson's monument in Washington, D.C. Many believe Jefferson was referring to King George of England and other political tyrants of the day, but in reality he was referring to the events of that presidential election and to the fundamentalist war on his character.
Why would colonial clergymen have so vigorously opposed Jefferson's election if he were as devoutly Christian as modern preachers and politicians want to claim? He wasn’t Christian, he said as much, and the people of his day knew that. They still elected him to the highest office of the land.
Nothing about Jefferson’s philosophy changed after he was elected President. As Supreme Court Justice William Souter noted in his opinion in Lee vs. Weisman (1990), Jefferson, while in office, refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations.
Modern historians know all of this to be true, but politicians and preachers still revise history to fit a Christian agenda. Honest people, when confronted with the evidence, are forced to admit that Thomas Jefferson was not the believer that Bible-thumpers want to paint. Unfortunately though, even when forced to admit the truth about Jefferson, fundamentalists continue insisting that a majority of our other Founders were Christian, and that their intention during the formative years of our country was to establish a "Christian nation."
As we will see in Part II of this thesis, history does not support this claim either.

[1] Seldes, G The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371
[2] August 6, 1816
[3] August 15, 1820
[4] April 11, 1823
[5] Edelen, W Politics and Religious IlliteracyTruth Seeker, Vol. 121, No. 3, p. 33
[6]  Padover, S Jefferson: A Great American's Life and Ideas, Mentor Books, 1964, p.116
[7] IBID



Terrant said...

I would like to thank you for this information. It was informative. I assume that there will be a second part and await it. :)

Mule Breath said...

Thank you, Terrant.

Yes, this will be an bit of an in-depth discussion, requiring at least two subsequent posts. There is more on Jefferson I wish to discuss, as well as the Jefferson-Madison connection.

Please feel free to contribute to the discussion. It will be nice if we can get a bit of a roundtable going.

Ambulance Driver said...

Well reasoned post, Mule Breath.

Strange how we got from "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." to "this is a Christian nation!"

Seems to me that, even if the majority of our Founding Fathers (sans Jefferson) were Christians, they also saw the potential for religious zealots to impose their will on others, and took steps to circumvent it.

I believe in God. It's just the preachers I'm not real sure about...

Anonymous said...

Another excellent post, Sir! And thanks for the references.