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Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Jefferson And The Future Of Religion In The US

President Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

Over the last thirty years, the Religious Right have aggressively pushed their influence into the political sphere. The Republicans have been the biggest party to tap into this religious incursion. Unfortunately, as the nation has changed over the last decade and a half, the Religious Right have started to find themselves slowly not only losing out politically, but losing out on membership.

Andrew Sullivan over at The Daily Beast has written an interesting article about this issue. He begins with:

If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.

When we think of Jefferson as the great architect of the separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by “church”: the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death. If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. “I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

Jefferson was one of our Founding Fathers, and as you know, he is one of the people who the Religious Right love to point to when they talk about how this nation is a Christian nation. Other than John Adams, most of the Founding Fathers were not overly devout, and they were not overly religious. In fact, they often made fun of Adams for his devotion to religion.

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One Response to Andrew Sullivan, Thomas Jefferson And The Future Of Religion In The US

  1. John Ragosta

    April 9, 2012 at 11:10 am

    One should be cautious in a debate over how “devout” the “Founding Fathers” were. Many were devout (depending upon who you include in the list), but that misses the point. They came together — devout, deist and Unitarian — in insisting upon a very broad religious freedom and a strong separation of church and state. Eighteenth century evangelicals joined in this battle. See Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty. Those who are devout should support that solution for the same reasons that devout people did so hundreds of years ago.