Monumental Lies: Jefferson, Reconstructed

In 1820, at age 77, Thomas Jefferson sat down with scissors and cut up some Bibles. This was more deliberate than it sounds: Jefferson neatly excised passages from versions of the Gospels in four different languages. He then arranged the blocks of text chronologically and pasted them onto blank folios, Greek and Latin in columns on the left-hand page, French and English on the right. Before sending the whole thing off to a bookbinder, Jefferson wrote the title page in his own hand: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels. Today we call it The Jefferson Bible.

This was not the first time Jefferson took blade to Bible. In 1804, early in his second term as president, Jefferson found time to cut and paste from two copies of the King James Bible. This volume, which Jefferson called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, is lost to history; regardless, it is clear that on both occasions Jefferson was engaging in an act of devotion when he edited the Gospels. In an 1813 letter to John Adams, he referred to Jesus’ teachings as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” The problem was the “corruptions” and “nonsense” added by later Christians: the virgin birth and faith healing, the idea of Jesus as both human and divine. In his version of the Gospels, Jefferson was looking to distill the “pure principles” of Jesus from the savior’s precepts, parables, and earthly biography.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Jefferson Bible is its brevity—25,000 words, compared to the 80,000 of the Gospels in the King James Bible. The recent re-publication from Tarcher/Penguin can just about fit into your pocket. But the elisions are equally striking. Instead of the genealogy that opens the Book of Matthew—and the New Testament itself—Jefferson begins at Luke 2, with Joseph schlepping his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, his home city, to pay the Roman tax. (In an intriguing echo of colonial grievances, some version of the word “tax” comes up four times on the first page of The Jefferson Bible.)

Jefferson’s Jesus chases the moneychangers from the Temple, wrangles with the Pharisees, and preaches the Sermon on the Mount. He is arrested and mocked and crucified. But John 3:16 does not make it into The Jefferson Bible. There is mention of the afterlife; but there are no angels or annunciations, no voice of God. Nor does Jesus heal the sick, raise the dead, proclaim his own divinity, or change water into wine. And The Jefferson Bible ends tersely, with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus at Jesus’ tomb: “There they laid Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”

The Jefferson Bible is undeniably a fascinating document. By removing the “diamonds from the dunghill,” as Jefferson put it to Adams, he gave us an original way to reconsider Jesus and his message. Here I should mention that I read these texts as a Jew looking for insight into Jesus, who is often, for me, a baffling figure. But even I noticed that along with the miracles, Jefferson had excised much of the awe: I missed the resonant echoes of Genesis in the Book of John.

Of course awe is not the point. Jefferson was a man of reason (except when it came to Sally Hemings or Alexander Hamilton). But for all his astonishing virtues, Jefferson never quite grasped that we look to religion for more than just well-reasoned values.

Perhaps then The Jefferson Bible is most useful for the insight it gives us into Jefferson himself. Jefferson was a deist: he found it rational to believe in what he called a “fabricator,” a God who had created the universe and its physical laws. But he also believed that organized religion (as some put it today) promoted superstition and corruption. Instead he hoped for a return to the “plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” For Jefferson, Jesus was not the Son of God or a miracle worker, but the greatest of all moral philosophers.

Such ideas were not uncommon among the educated elites of the American Enlightenment. But they were uncommon in American life. Thus, as Edwin Gaustad recounts in his “religious biography” of Jefferson, Sworn on the Altar of God, Jefferson’s ideals provided easy ammunition for his rivals. During the 1800 presidential race, he was described as “an enemy to pure morals and religion and consequently an enemy to his country and God.” Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s enemy since the Washington Administration, suggested a “a legal and Constitutional step, to prevent an atheist in Religion and a fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of the State” (emphasis Hamilton’s).

Jefferson was stung by these accusations. Decades later, when he created The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, he was wary of disturbing his own retirement. He never allowed the book to be published, knowing that his religious views were too unorthodox for his time.

And maybe for our time as well. Centuries after the vicious election of 1800, Jefferson’s ideals are once again being misinterpreted for political gain. But this time the misinterpretation is in the other direction, with a small but influential group of extremists portraying Jefferson as an orthodox believer whose “wall of separation” was intended to keep the church free from the state, and not the other way around.

Jefferson, however, is only one part of this radical reimagining of American history. According to Christian Reconstructionists, the story of American governance begins with the Puritan Separatists, or Pilgrims, who founded their settlement on what they deemed “biblical principles.” This tradition was almost seamlessly continued when the founding fathers, Jefferson included, created a “Christian nation.” The reward for all this piety was unprecedented freedom and prosperity. But when Americans moved away from the Bible—allowed socialism, secularism, and humanism to infect society—we committed a grave error, opening the door to economic insecurity and moral corruption.

This narrative, of course, is not unique to Reconstructionists; many evangelical Christians espouse the same story. But most evangelicals are “premillenialists,” believing that all will be put right when the Second Coming of Christ kick-starts the thousand-year Kingdom of God. Reconstructionists are “postmillennialists,” believing that they can create God’s Kingdom on Earth—indeed that they must create it, by “reconstructing” America as a Christian society.

The inherent contradiction of Reconstructionism lies in its disdain for politics. Christian Reconstructionists see statism as idolatry; any attempt to transform government would be to elevate the Work of Man above the Work of God. Instead, ever since the founding of the movement in the 1970s, Reconstructionists have subscribed to a vague form of incrementalism: America will transform itself when enough individuals return to Christ.

But as the election of 1800 demonstrates, it’s always been hard for Americans to keep religion out of politics. Given the postmillenial goals of the Reconstructionists, it was inevitable that they would inject their ideals into the national dialogue. Indeed, how could they stay out of it?

Which brings us to Kirk Cameron. It may seem bizarre to mention this former teen idol in the same breath as the Kingdom of God; but Cameron, the star of ABC’s Growing Pains from 1985 to 1992, was “born again” while on hiatus in 1990. Since then he’s played the role of the Christian actor with relish—proselytizing, starring in Christian-themed movies, “debunking” Darwin. Now he seems to have shifted from garden-variety evangelical to Reconstructionist, as evidenced by his recent documentary, Monumental: In Search of America’s National Treasure.

Monumental opens with the former TV actor ruminating on American decline. “There is something seriously sick in the soul of our country,” says Cameron, over a quasi-blues soundtrack. He tells the viewer that America is mired in debt, “the family is falling apart,” and teachers are “afraid” to utter the American motto, In God we trust. According to Cameron, this is a recipe for tyranny. But there is “a way out of this mess.” All we have to do is remember what “made this nation so successful and healthy and prosperous and secure in the first place.”

Cameron is of course talking about biblical principles. But apparently this precious legacy—the “treasure” of the documentary’s title—has been concealed by those who hate Christian values. So Cameron sets off to uncover our hidden heritage. Monumental is thus a kind of travelogue, with Cameron, as faux naïf, interviewing various “experts” about our devoutly Christian forefathers. In England, he learns about the Puritans from Sue Allan, whose authority is largely based on a trilogy of self-published historical novels. In Massachusetts, he hears about the trials of the Plymouth Colony from Marshall Foster, president of the World History Institute, which, despite its expansive name, is likely run from Foster’s dining room table.

The big payoff is supposed to come when Foster brings Cameron to the National Monument to the Forefathers. Tucked away in a quiet section of Plymouth, Massachusetts, the monument has been justifiably forgotten by the American public—one present-day critic refers to it as “overwhelming,” “ungainly,” and “one of the more lugubrious deposits of mid-nineteenth-century American ideals.” Nevertheless, Foster insists that its allegorical sculptures—Faith, Liberty, Morality, and so on—represent a “blueprint” left by the Puritans for our time.

Of course Foster (who has co-producer credit on Monumental) has the right to believe whatever he likes. But his disquisition on the monument reveals the Reconstructionist tendency to ignore unpleasant facts. When Foster explains that it was “paid for by Congress” and “the State Legislature of Massachusetts,” he intimates that this was yet another example of elected officials celebrating our Christian heritage. The figure of Morality was indeed a gift of Massachusetts and Freedom a gift of Congress. But everything else—the eleven remaining sculptures, the inscriptions and friezes, the massive base—were paid for with private funds.

While watching Monumental, one has the impression of an enthusiastic discussion of Great Questions by mediocre minds. To be honest, I did find myself marveling along with Cameron at the bravery of the Separatist Puritans, who risked everything to practice their stark faith. But Monumental provides no evidence of a direct contribution to American governance. This teleological vagueness is not surprising, given that Monumental was written by Kevin Miller, who also wrote Expelled, a 2008 documentary that asserted a direct link between Darwinism and the Nazi genocide.

The greater part of Monumental is spent on the Pilgrims, but the founding fathers aren’t entirely neglected. Their religiosity is “proved” in a relatively brief segment with David Barton, whom Cameron refers to as “the leading expert in the country for original source documents during the founding era.” This is hard to swallow, as Barton, like Foster, tends to mangle his facts. Barton claims that Jefferson and John Adams “put up the financial backing” for a 1798 Bible, when in fact both men purchased it by pre-publication subscription, a common way for entrepreneurial printers to raise funds at the time. Barton claims, too, that a 1782 Bible “was printed by the Congress of the United States.” While the Bible of ‘82 did receive a polite letter of approbation from the Continental Congress, it was printed privately.

This is just a taste of the historical distortions of David Barton. (I almost typed “epic mendaciousness,” but I’m sure that he believes everything he says and writes.) A Texas preacher and pseudo-historian, Barton has made a career out of misattributing an overwhelming religiosity to the founding fathers. To promote his agenda, Barton also founded an organization with the disingenuous name of WallBuilders (it refers not to Jefferson’s wall of separation but to an obscure passage from Nehemiah).

It’s a lucrative gig: according to public tax records, Wallbuilder Presentations, Inc., the nonprofit arm of his organization, averaged around a million dollars in revenue per year between 2006 and 2010. And despite his factual inadequacies—or perhaps due to them—Barton has gained real political influence: he’s been vice-chairman of the Texas GOP and a paid adviser to the Republican National Committee.

Barton’s dozen or so books, which include The Myth of Separation of Church and State, America’s Godly Heritage, and The Second Amendment, have evinced the expected preoccupations. Lately, though, he’s raising his game—or trying to—by going after Thomas Jefferson, the founding father whose blatantly unorthodox beliefs and voluminous writings should make him the hardest to colonize.

The premise of The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson is that liberal historians have tendentiously promoted an image of this great American as an irreligious racist; and in the name of God and country, Barton is going to set things right. But first, there’s some historiography to get through. And it is ludicrous. In the introduction, Barton blames the bias against Jefferson on “practices that now dominate the study of American history and its heroes: Deconstructionism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, Minimalism, and Academic Collectivism.” For Barton, deconstructionism and post-structuralism are not abstruse academic concepts but ways of “belittling” Western values. Modernism “severs history from its context and setting”; minimalism “is an unreasonable insistence on oversimplification” (which, come to think of it, is an apt description of Philip Glass). “Academic collectivism” is Barton’s own term for when lazy scholars quote one another rather than use primary sources. Here he sort of has a point. But then we’ve seen what Barton himself does with primary sources.

Now we come to the “lies,” most of which are what real historians like to call “facts.” Barton claims that Jefferson was not “a racist who opposed equality for Black Americans,” when Jefferson indeed believed that blacks were inferior and more than once suggested they be deported. Others “lies” are classic straw men. For example, he counters the supposedly frequent assertion that Jefferson was an atheist, when Christopher Hitchens has been the only reasonable (or mostly reasonable) person making that claim since 1800.

Barton’s chapter on The Jefferson Bible is particularly bad. The “lie” here is that Jefferson “wrote his own Bible and edited out the things he didn’t agree with.” Unfortunately, with the slight exception of the word “wrote”—“redaction” would perhaps be more accurate—this is a concise summation of the truth.

Barton insists that in both The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus, Jefferson left in the miracles. In terms of The Philosophy of Jesus, Barton writes that Jefferson “definitely did include” Jesus miraculously healing the sick and raising the dead. This is an impossible claim to deny with absolute authority, since the book hasn’t been seen in 200 years. But the “table of the texts” that Jefferson used in 1804 does survive. In it, the verses that Barton specifically mentions (like Matthew 9:1 or 11:4-6) are nowhere to be seen. In the same vein, Barton declares that The Life and Morals of Jesus—a.k.a. The Jefferson Bible—“contained numerous passages on the miraculous and the supernatural” (emphasis Barton’s). He then lists some twenty such passages that either (a) don’t appear in Jefferson’s book; (b) appear in an abridged form; or (c) refer to an afterlife, which Jefferson professed to believe in, although he didn’t seem to worry much about it.

The Jefferson Lies could serve as its own kind of monument: call it The National Monument to Bullshit. In all fairness, Barton has a good cause: to rehabilitate the image of Jefferson as a slave-shtupping bigot (I’m paraphrasing). Nevertheless, The Jefferson Lies is a remarkably bad book. So bad that in July, readers of the History News Network voted it “the least credible history book in print.” So bad that in August, its publisher, Thomas Nelson, pulled the book from its list.

The Jefferson Lies remains inevitably available on Amazon and the WallBuilders website. Don’t buy it. If you’re still interested in Barton’s arguments after reading through the above, I recommend Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President. This is a notable book, not only for its clarity but also for its authors: both Warren Throckmorton, a professor of psychology, and Michael Coulter, a professor of political science, identify as Christian conservatives, and they teach at Grove City College, an evangelical institution.

Throckmorton and Coulter are disturbed by The Jefferson Lies, as Barton’s shenanigans darken the reputation of conservative Christians with a “commitment to integrity in scholarship.” But their book is moderate in tone and full of cogent arguments. My one criticism of Getting Jefferson Right is that it avoids the Sally Hemings controversy. (Barton, obviously, believes that Jefferson kept his hands to himself; I think that the evidence, while circumstantial, suggests otherwise). I can understand their desire not to wade into that morass. Still, they might have summarized the reasonable arguments for both sides of the debate while simultaneously pointing out Barton’s egregious errors on the subject.

The Reconstructionist take on American history is a catalogue of such errors. It’s important to identify them, but it’s equally important to consider where they may lead us. Thus a crucial question remains: what do they mean by a nation run according to “biblical principles?”

Before we speculate about a Christian utopia, we must look backward, to the father of the movement, Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001). An Orthodox Presbyterian minister and theologian, Rushdoony was heavily influenced by Calvinism. He believed that the blueprint for a reconstructed America was Mosaic law—or, more specifically, the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy not expressly abrogated by Jesus Christ. In his 1973 tome, Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony advocated for a strongly patriarchal society that imposes the death penalty for homosexuality, abortion, adultery, blasphemy, recidivism and disrespecting parental authority. Rushdoony also imagined a radically libertarian society—one without public schools, Social Security, or much in the way of taxes.

But at its start, remember, Christian Reconstructionism was an incrementalist movement. Rushdoony had no trouble with violent punishment, but thought it un-Christian to reconstruct the nation with violence. America will change when enough individuals change, which will, in turn, reconstruct families, churches, and an unobtrusive government. This is still the position of the organization that Rushdoony created, the Chalcedon Foundation, which is now run by his son, Mark.

On the other hand, there’s Michael Bray, a minister and Reconstructionist who served almost four years in prison for his role in the firebombing of seven women’s health care clinics in 1985. Bray’s book, A Time to Kill, advocates for the murder of abortion providers. (So much for incrementalism.) And there’s Paul Hill, whose writings show the influence of Reconstructionism. In 1994, Hill brought his shotgun to the parking lot of a clinic in Florida, which he used to murder Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett and to injure Britton’s wife, June. Hill was put to death by lethal injection in 2003.

Such stories are distressing. But it would be an exaggeration to brand Christian Reconstructionism as inherently prone to violence. The present generation of Rushdoonyites—like Mark Rushdoony and Marshall Foster—are less obsessed with bloodshed than order and punishment. Admittedly, it’s a fine point; and it’s easy to see how Reconstructionist ideals could be used to justify violence. Still, I think Bray and Hill are part of a broader trend of right-wing violence.

As for Barton, although he adores the Second Amendment, I think it’s safe to say that he is against violence. There’s no money in it. But I do have an educated guess as to what Reconstructionists like Barton (and Foster and Cameron) envision for our future. They look forward to a patriarchal nation wherein abortion is punishable by death and homosexuality is outlawed; where the Bible and Creationism replace history and science; where all restrictions on firearms have been removed and taxes are almost nonexistent—a cross between Mad Max, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Saudi Arabia.

So, should we be afraid? Yes, I think so, a little bit. Because Barton and his ilk invoke Jefferson while trying to create a state religion. Because they would impose their own morality on us and call it “liberty.”

I’m not saying that we should panic. A nation that can re-elect a center-left leader like Obama is not in imminent danger of turning into the Republic of Gilead. But we should be wary, because Reconstructionist ideals are gaining ground in American politics. It’s not a stretch to say that Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were influenced by Christian Reconstructionism. And it’s important to note that Representative Todd Akin, who blew his bid for the Senate with his moronic talk of “legitimate rape,” appears in Monumental. In the documentary, Akin proclaims that “the set of ideas that is being implemented and advanced in this capital at this time is terribly frightening to people who are students of history.” Of course he’s talking about godless liberals, but it also describes how many Americans feel about him.

All things considered, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that Reconstructionists confuse themselves about the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson. Americans, whether conservative or liberal, look for tidy little narratives about their history. But Jefferson was a bundle of contradictions—a religious skeptic with a deep affection for the teachings of Jesus Christ; a rhetorical genius capable of writing that “all men are created equal” while owning slaves and musing over the expatriation of blacks.

And Jefferson was not above his own historical distortions. There is his bible, which, if we are to be fair, is a radical revision from a Christian point of view. (No wonder Barton can’t get his head around it.) Then there are his Saxons.

In 1774, just before the First Continental Congress, Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America. He intended it as a list of complaints to be put to King George III, but it was also a stepping stone to the Declaration of Independence: “the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.” But mixed among real grievances like the Stamp Act, Jefferson presented a strange line of reasoning. He argued that before the Norman Conquest, “our Saxon ancestors” held all their land and property “in absolute dominion, disencumbered with any superior.” Feudalism, or “the fictitious principle that all lands belong originally to the king,” came in with the Normans in 1066. Ergo, Americans were free to dispose of their lands as they saw fit.

It’s not Jefferson’s soundest legal argument. And it seems a little much to believe that the Saxons lived in perfect libertarian freedom until the French came along. Nevertheless, Jefferson seems to have believed it, just as Reconstructionists believe that the founding fathers were motivated by “biblical principles.” The significant difference, in this case, is that Reconstructionists distort history to promote a state religion, and Jefferson’s distortions were in the cause of liberty.

Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.