This afternoon Slate ran a story that was really fascinating to me. Recently I’ve been reading the Jefferson Bible (available from Wal-Mart), and thinking that really, America has been a secular country from the beginning.
Here is our country’s founder-philosopher-slave-owning-Louisiana-purchasing king. Almost everyone in America–whether they realize it or not–can quote a little Jefferson. He is our Seneca.
Yet this same Jefferson cut up the Gospels, took out all the miracles and references to Christ’s divinity, and glued the results back together under the title The Life and Morals of Jesus. According to the Smithsonian, who published an excellent version of the text last year, “his goal was to rid the gospel message of those aspects that appeared to him as ‘contrary to reason,’ leaving behind only the authentic Jesus.”
Jefferson’s gospel was “distilled” down to what he thought was, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” They were offered, not by the Son of God, but by a very nice man who is baptized without incident, still says “woe to you who are rich,” and replies to Pilate’s question “Are thou then the Son of God?” with, “Ye say that I am.”
For this reason, the book chillingly ends, with the stone rolled in front of Christ’s tomb and his friends walking away. Jefferson’s creed would go, “I believe in Christ, ya da ya da ya da, was crucified, died and was buried. The end,” and skips Easter all together.
Needless to say, this loses a lot of the essential tenets of the faith. Not even the most accepting religion puts up with individuals cutting up a foundational holy text and putting it back together to suit their liking, and for good reason. Seems like a step on your way to leading a cult.
Jefferson has no such ambitions however. “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” he is quoted as telling a correspondent in 1819. The Smithsonian notes, it contained the one form of Christianity–however misshapen it appeared to others–that Jefferson believed.
It’s still a powerful, if comparatively dull read. Without Christ healing the sick, walking on water or feeding thousands, all He does is tell enigmatic stories and give confounding advice. In an effort to remove the things that make Christ divine, Jefferson loses most of what makes Christ seem human and relatable. For instance, Jefferson cuts Christ’s very human relationship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus completely (I guess it would be a real downer if Lazarus dies and doesn’t come back from the dead. It would make Jesus’s weird reluctance to go back to Bethany when he first hears that Lazarus is sick a really regrettable choice).
Our founding philosopher is a rational, Enlightenment scholar, a thorough-going secularist. Of course the religious can vote based on their faith, and invoke it wherever they want, I suppose; they just shouldn’t look to Jefferson to condone their behavior. The United States is a very religious country, but that doesn’t mean we have a religious government or religiously-based system of government, at least not to the extent that we’re shaped by Jefferson.
Oddly enough, Tarek Mosoud casually invoked the Gospel this afternoon in article on Slate to describe the United States’ reaction to the actions of the Egyptian government and the Egyptian protestors who are rioting in Cairo this week.
Morsi and the Brotherhood so far have refused to take a page from the U.S. playbook and turn the other cheek.
What a bizarre thing to say. If this guy can’t get through one article without implying that the reason a Muslim country and the United States don’t get along because the U.S. follows the words of Christ, and Muslim countries don’t, then when the headline for the story asks: “Is This the Clash of Civilizations?” are you concluding yes?
Surprisingly, Mosoud instead concludes:
Though the protests have been portrayed as spontaneous expressions of civilizational anguish, they are—as almost all protests are—actually organized by political actors with agendas to advance.
So I can’t help but wonder. Is this:
- A total accident, revealing just how deeply the United States is permeated with the teachings of Christ, to the extent that our liberal, digital magazine journalists will–from time to time–subconsciously pull out his Words, thus proving that there probably is quite a bit of cultural baggage to sift through, and maybe we’re doomed to forever go on Otherizing a whole religion and region of the world OR
- Proof that the Jefferson’s Bible won out, and our society is secular but still Biblically-based OR
- A slip in Slate’s otherwise very subtle campaign to retake the Holy Land.
Is this part of the Jefferson Gospel? To what extent can you quote a religious text without dragging in any religious meaning? If our secularism rises from a place heavily invested in the Bible, doesn’t it make sense that secularism in places that revere another holy book would also be different?
And if Mosoud is wrong and the outrage behind the rioting in Cairo is actually religious in nature, doesn’t the gap between rioting due to an offensive film and knowing that one of your revered founders is a open and unrepentant heretic seem like a pretty substantial difference?
Even with over 200 years of practice, it’d be hard to say that the United States has figured out how to balance a religious population with a secular system of government. Expecting Egypt to be able to do so with a brand-new government, and admonishing the government as not acting “grown up” feels like a pretty naive position. You can decry violence toward the uninvolved (or even those who are involved) without pretending like becoming a Western-style nation-state is as easy as flipping a dictator. Writing the history of America without including this tension leaves as much on the cutting room floor as Jefferson did.