Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Jefferson was not a closet conservative
May 13, 2012
Thomas Jefferson saw himself a theist. “Theist” is the Greek form of the Latin “deist,” who many refer to as “Unitarian” today.
Jefferson believed in a creator he addressed as “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. He ranked Jesus as the supreme moral teacher but not the savior who rescued sinners.
Confident that such views of God and Jesus would flourish at the start of the 19th century, Jefferson’s prediction proved wrong.
Evangelical Christians burst on the national scene. Their revivals spread through the U.S.
Undeterred by deism’s loss of popularity, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822: “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free enquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian.”
Today, lightweight historian David Barton, who heads the Texas-based WallBuilders ministry, has published an historical expose, “The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed” about Thomas Jefferson.
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He spins historical inaccuracies about Jefferson, making him into a devout, conservative Christian. Perhaps Barton tries to hoodwink readers out of naivete. He doesn’t hold an earned college degree in history. He settled for a major in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, a stronghold of
For years, Barton has peddled a version of American history that appeals to evangelical Christians. He rewrites U.S. history so that separation of church and state collapses. He twists self-evident truths about Jefferson into loopy theories that support his right-wing biases.
Moreover, Barton’s convinced that the religious right’s version of the U.S. as a Christian nation was the founders’ intention from the start. He clinches this dubious case by getting gullible readers to believe that Thomas Jefferson practiced a closet conservative Christianity.
Time magazine ranked Barton as one of the 25 “most influential evangelicals.” He’s the preferred historian of former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
Former Fox news personality Glen Beck wrote the forward to his book. It gains an aura of legitimacy because Thomas Nelson, a noted seller of Bibles, published it.
Barton claims Jefferson started out as a conservative Christian. Later in life, he became mesmerized by unorthodox Christian preachers who drifted into deism. Such a concocted theory defies logic or the historic record we possess of how Jefferson formed his religious beliefs.
Early on, under the influence of European thinkers who didn’t take the Bible literally, Jefferson rejected Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the Trinity and the physical resurrection of Christ. He sneered at these core evangelical doctrines as “holy mysticisms” laced with superstition.
Jefferson’s mind teemed with theological controversy. He edited a version of the Bible that accepted only portions that reason authenticated. He compared Jesus’ moral instruction with ethical inquiries Socrates, Seneca and Cicero advanced. He championed the mind as free from dogma clergy preached. He held to a constellation of private religious beliefs so heretical to conservative Christians that he confessed, “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
In a Wall Street Journal review of Barton’s book, Jefferson scholar Alan Pell Crawford throws it on bonfires of trashed literature.
“Jefferson’s religious beliefs are central to Mr. Barton’s thesis, in the service of which straw men are consumed in bonfires,” concludes historian Crawford. “No Jefferson scholar, to my knowledge, has ever concluded that Jefferson was an ‘atheist,’ as Mr. Barton suggests. That Jefferson might have been a deist or even a Unitarian, as many historians believe, Mr. Barton also disputes. Jefferson was ‘pro-Christian and pro-Jesus,’ he says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about ‘specific Christian doctrines'” (Wall Street Journal, April 14-15, 2012, p. C8).
Barton gains many converts, using a rapid-fire delivery of what’s fallacious. Rewriting American history to his liking, he winks at the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual understanding” (Romans 14:19).
Aiming verbal artillery at opponents, Barton takes no prisoners. He sounds like Frederic Henry Hedge, an early 19th-century scholar who mastered the German language so convincingly that admirers referred to him as Germanicus Hedge. His Prussian obduracy was legendary.
Friend Cyrus Bartol related how someone told Hedge “the facts were against him.” He retorted in a style Barton emulates, “So much worse for the facts.”
Barton’s belligerent tone and dismissive intellect do no service to Jefferson or the 18th-century conservative Christians with whom he clashed.
His errant interpretation of Jefferson’s religion misleads readers. Barton’s shoddy scholarship adds nothing to credible studies of Jefferson’s religious convictions.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.