Mr. Jefferson's Religion
The moral basis for the American Revolution against the British crown is laid out in the Declaration of Independence, surely the most beloved document in American history. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Mr. Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”
One might think that Mr. Jefferson was a biblical Christian. Just as he was a radical thinker in politics; however, he felt no obligation to regard all of the Bible as sacred Scripture. The second floor of the National Museum of American History has a small room containing Jefferson’s personal Bible. Its pages have been cut up and are missing portions. Jefferson sliced out what he determined to be the actual teachings of Jesus Christ, and he pasted them into a far slimmer volume. Truly it is not difficult to be disgusted with what the church has done with its doctrines. Jefferson was two centuries closer to the savage religious wars that tore up Europe in the 1500s and 1600s.
The April 9, 2012 issue of Newsweek presents an essay by blogger Andrew Sullivan. Like Jefferson, his disgust at evangelical hardball politics and the sexual abuses of his own Catholic church has led him to embrace only a few slices of the sayings of Jesus as universal truth. He finds a hero in St. Francis of Assisi, whose poverty and nonviolence attracted enough followers to begin an entirely new monastic order. Sullivan:
Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things and know that this being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all, give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands on the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.
There is considerable appeal to our generation in his words. People today are dropping out of church life as never before, all the while asserting that they are “spiritual.” It isn’t hard to find examples of hypocrisy, charlatans, and poseurs in the organized church. (On the other hand, kindly find me an example of any business or profession that hasn’t had abuse, graft, bribery and hucksters).
But Christianity is far more than just moral philosophy. You don’t need Christ if your only goal is to encourage people to live humbly, show mercy, and be nice to everybody. It seems to me that what Sullivan is missing is the reason Christ suffered so terribly: he offered his life as a guilt offering for the sins of the world to a Judge who demanded blood. The suffering and death of Christ were not just a sweet example of a kind and decent man who was brave, but the conscious and willing surrender to the Plan laid out by his Father. He was wounded to bring us healing; he died to make us alive; he was judged so that we might be acquitted; he went to hell that we might go to heaven.
I wonder if Mr. Jefferson believed any of that. Do you?
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