This week a twitter feed for retiring United Methodist bishop William Willimon exclaimed: “[Thomas] Jefferson created a polity with religion completely free as long as it was personal and private… [creating] essentially [an] atheist national polity.” Earlier this year, Willimon, who’s returning to Duke University, faulted Jefferson for the “privatization” of God through the “modern democratic, liberal nation state in order to neutralize Christianity, to bury God in the confines of the self, to trivialize the Trinity, and to keep this governmentally troubling faith from going public.”
As Willimon asserted, the Jeffersonian experiment has created the “omnipotent state and its capitalist economy.” Of course, Jeffersonians believed in minimal government. And an omnipotent state is a contradiction to a free market economy. Although Methodist, Willimon belongs to the neo-Anabaptist perspective, most popularized by his popular Duke colleague Stanley Hauerwas, that demonizes American democracy while not offering any alternatives, except “the church.” Mainstream Christianity professes that God has ordained other institutions besides the church, such as the state, rightly ordered.
Sensibly, Willimon did note that the “government has found that Christians (well, any believer who thinks that his or her God might be more important than the state) are easier to manage if they will confine their faith to something within.” But this modern drive to privatize religion was launched by secularists and strict separationists, not Jeffersonians, who believed in a thriving civil society that included robust religious institutions. Religious enthusiasts and evangelicals of the early 19th century supported Jefferson and his party instead of the Federalists and the established churches of the eastern seaboard.
Debating Jefferson and his impact on religion is a favorite American pastime. Secularists and strict separationists ardently quote Jefferson’s opposition to state churches. Religionists with equal fervor quote Jefferson’s robust defense of religious liberty. Popular conservative religious activist David Barton has just released a new book called The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. It’s a full throttle defense of Jefferson’s character and specifically of his personal faith.
Barton’s group, Wallbuilders, specializes in spotlighting America’s Christian history to rebut secularist attempts to marginalize public faith. Spotlighted in a New York Times feature last year, and appearing on the Jon Stewart Show this year, Barton infuriates secularists and liberals with his chapter and verse citations of early American religious history. Some conservatives have also challenged his alleged exaggerations of early American religiosity and virtue. Two Grove City College professors have published Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President to correct many of Barton’s assertions about Jefferson’s rectitude.
In his latest book, Barton asserts that Jefferson strayed in and out of Christian orthodoxy, was influenced by the first and second Great Awakenings, and later was influenced by the prevalence of Christian Primitivists and Restorationists in the Charlottesville, Virginia area. These movements emphasized “primitive” Christianity based ostensibly only on the Bible while they rejected what they thought was church tradition, like belief in the Trinity or Christ’s specific deity. They emphasized the Gospels but not the Epistles or the Old Testament. They also were interdenominational and anti-Calvinist. Beyond saying that preachers of these doctrines were common in Jefferson’s neighborhood, and showing how some of their themes were similar to Jefferson’s, Barton does not specifically demonstrate their direct influence on Jefferson. Barton insists Jefferson was theologically orthodox until middle aged. But other writers, including conservative Christians, date Jefferson’s departure from orthodoxy to his early manhood.
Barton readily admits that Jefferson was an enthusiast for Unitarianism during his final years, even as he continued to attend and financially support Trinitarian churches, especially the Episcopal Church, in which he had served as vestryman during his younger years. Although acknowledging Jefferson’s heterodox theology, Barton concludes Jefferson was “pro-Christian and pro-Jesus.” Barton’s critics cite this rhetoric as evidence of Barton’s crusade to enlist the Founding Fathers as posthumous friends of the modern Religious Right. Some Religious Right authors, like the late Peter Marshall (son of the famous U.S. Senate chaplain of the same name), have demonized Jefferson as an infidel who contrasted with more devout Founders. But Barton sides with others like Pat Robertson, who also claims Jefferson as a friend to religion and to liberty whatever his personal theology.
As even his critics grant, Barton successfully recalls lots of forgotten early American religious history, including obscure clergy, which they complain only makes him more dangerous. Barton’s linking Jefferson to early 19th century Christian Primitivism and Restorationism (whose descendants largely became Trinitarian and are today in the modern Churches of Christ and the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) is provocative but, at least in his book, somewhat lacking in direct evidence. Most religious writers tie Jefferson’s religious beliefs to European Enlightenment thinkers.
A definitive book on Jefferson and religion is probably yet to be written. What is needed is a work like Michael Novak’s recent Washington’s God or Mary Thompson’s In the Hands of a Good Providence. Both these books subtly disprove the frequent charge that George Washington was a deist without exaggerating his piety or orthodoxy.
Jefferson was a lifelong church goer and supporter who regarded himself as a Christian, even while privately rejecting its key doctrines as a distraction from its moral teachings. Like any good politician, he nurtured friendships with believers in nearly all religious groups then in America. And he sincerely believed that religion was essential to national character. For him the free exercise of religion fully in public life was especially important to restraining unlimited government.
It’s pointless to claim Jefferson for the modern Religious Right. But it’s even more absurd to equate him with Norman Lear. And Bishop Willimon’s implication that Jefferson was a sort of Robespierre who drove religion into the closet is equally baseless. Like nearly all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson spoke and acted on grand themes that transcend most modern American ideological categories. That the Religious Right and secular Left can both at times claim Jefferson likely would delight him.