Time Magazine talks about the God of America’s Founding Fathers.

There’s a very well written article up over at Time.com about what the Founding Fathers believed about God and the role of religion in American government. In particular it focuses on Jefferson and his desire that church and state should be separate and it talks a bit about the various revisions of the Declaration of Independence.

TIME Magazine: God Of Our Fathers

Colonial America had seen its share of religious battles, in which arcane theological disputes like the one over antinomianism caused Puritans to be banished from Massachusetts and have to go establish colonies like Rhode Island. The founders, however, were careful in their debates and seminal documents to avoid using God as a political wedge issue or a cause of civic disputes. Indeed, that would have appalled them. Instead they embraced a vague civic religion that invoked a depersonalized deity that most people could accept. “Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved,” Jefferson once wrote. “I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” So it is difficult to know exactly what the founders would have felt about the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or about displaying the Ten Commandments. It is probable, however, that they would have disapproved of people on either side who used the Lord’s name or the Ten Commandments as a way to divide Americans rather than as a way to unite them.

After reading the writings of many of the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson—who is often a favorite for attempts at historical revisionism by the Christian right—I find it hard to imagine how anyone can try to claim that the Founding Fathers never intended to establish a secular government when they launched this country. Jefferson wrote at length about his religious views, his “wall of separation,” and what his intentions were when he helped to craft the documents that would establish this nation. The same is true of many of the other Founding Fathers including Franklin, Adams, and Madison. Some on the Christian right would do well to study a few American history books for a change.

9 thoughts on “Time Magazine talks about the God of America’s Founding Fathers.

  1. This sort of relates to the new Bible translation thread too – lots of people don’t know (and the fundies aren’t about to remind them) that Thomas Jefferson made his own translation of the Bible.

    I read it back at the Christian college I attended.  It was pretty cool and permanently cured me of the notion that Jefferson was really a Christian trying to be cool.  To the contrary, he was a humanist all the way through. 

    It was basically the New Testament minus the supernatural junk, as Jefferson simply excised anything he thought had been added later by the credulous and dimwitted.  As a review on Amazon.com says,

    Did you ever wonder what the Gospels would be like without all that supernatural stuff? Thomas Jefferson did, and he found out [in around 1820] by using multiple copies of the Bible and a razor blade…

    Captcha:  good

  2. Oh, the Fundies will tell you about the Jefferson Bible, but they’ll try to tell you it’s a myth. Check the two links I put in my entry about revisionism and you’ll see that’s exactly the claim being made in one of them. When it was pointed out that more than one person has a copy of the Bible sitting on their bookshelves they were challenged to show the “original version in Jefferson’s handwriting.”

  3. They are a narrow-minded lot.  I’m amazed at how few believers have actually gone back to read original transcripts of the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ or books that were not canonized.  The book of ‘Giants’ is a great read.  It’s bad enough dealing with blind faith, but as time passes it becomes blind, ignorant, bastardized faith.

    [Quote]When it was pointed out that more than one person has a copy of the Bible sitting on their bookshelves they were challenged to show the “original version in Jefferson’s handwriting.[/Quote]

    Selective irrationality at its best.

  4. I had always thought that Jefferson was an atheist.  That is what I had always been taught about the founder.  Isn’t this correct?

  5. Depends on who you ask, but the truth is he wasn’t an atheist by any stretch of the imagination—even if he did sound like one from time to time. Jefferson believed in a rational God that was a mix of different religious viewpoints of which only some aspects were derived from Christianity. The quotation a lot of Christian Revisionists like to seize upon as proof that Jefferson was a Christian goes as follows:

    “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others,”—Letter to Benjamin Rush, 21 April 1803

    Taken at face value the quote seems to verify the claims, but when you actually study Jefferson’s writings you find he was highly critical of Christianity and what he considered the various absurdities and insanities that were attributed to it in the Bible. Jefferson believed that Jesus did teach “pure moral precepts,” but also felt that the Christian religion had been corrupted and distorted by those who would turn Jesus into a God rather than a prophet.

    “We find in the writings of his biographers … a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.”—Letter to William Short, August 4, 1822 on Jesus’ biographers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

    Clearly Jefferson was a Christian unlike any other and most Christians of the time would claim he wasn’t a true Christian at all. According to Charles Sanford in The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson was “both a theist and a deist, Unitarian and Episcopalian, Epicurean and naturalist.” Indeed, Jefferson thought that everyone would eventually be Unitarian.

    “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”—Letter to Waterhouse, June 26, 1822

    You can read more about Jefferson’s religious viewpoints in both Sanford’s book and an online essay titled The Exaltation of a Reasonable Deity: Thomas Jefferson’s Critique of Christianity by Jeremy Koselak.

    Atheist? No, but a believer that no atheist would find much to quarrel with.

  6. Jefferson came to deny the deity of Jesus towards the latter days of his life.  This explains the apparent dilemma as to whether he was a Christian; i.e. why at one time (1803) he could sound like a Christian and yet at another time (1820s) sound like a Unitarian.  But always a theist.  fwiw.

  7. It’s funny how Christians only take away a portion of Jefferson’s quote on his being a Christian.  The quote starts off with “To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed oppossed:…”  Speaking directly of the Greek influences such as the divine trinity.

    Even early in his life Jefferson made an admirable theist.  He writes to his nephew: [Quote]“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”[/Quote]

    Jefferson was the ‘Stupid Evil Bastard’ of his day.

  8. Sounds like Jefferson would do poorly in Iraq, where you’re an “atheist” if you don’t tow the whole barge.

    The Jefferson bible a myth?  My church history professor (at the somewhat fundy Christian college I attended) didn’t think so, and he was a very erudite scholar.  He recommended we read it so we wouldn’t be taken in by the notion of all “founding fathers” as devout Christians. 

    There were a couple copies in the library there and every once in a while some uber-fundy student would find out about it and get all pissed off. 

    I’m not a Jefferson scholar but the impression I got was that he wanted to highlight the moral teachings of Jesus without “superstition,” hence the edited NT version.  I think he felt the answers are very much up to us, not divine intervention.  I admit I don’t understand how fundies fail to see this as Jefferson made it pretty clear.

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