NOTE: This post was updated on February 27, 2012.
Executive summary: This is a long post, so I’ll briefly summarize it here. Thomas Jefferson was an intelligent man who properly understood that the true message of Jesus was of a spiritual (not religious) nature – that the Bible was never meant to be interpreted in the literal fashion taught by modern Christian fundamentalists, who cling to an unfortunate perversion of spiritual truth. Conformity has largely squashed reason and critical thinking in our society when it comes to religious matters. Please resist the easy path of conformity to popular religious beliefs; follow your heart. Have the courage to immerse yourself in your own independent, objective study of truth and reality – just as Thomas Jefferson had the courage to do. If religious fundamentalism rings true, then shouldn’t it stand up to an intellectually honest, unbiased, serious investigation? Study it, then decide for yourself. 
Here in the United States, we frequently see the most radical branches of the Religious Right proclaiming the views of the Founding Fathers as their own. One of the false assumptions made therein is that the Founding Fathers, as a whole, embraced Hard Right, fundamentalist versions of Christianity — those inexplicable, unbelievable catalogs of dogma into which the practical, no-nonsense teachings of Jesus somehow devolved over the centuries.
These rather accusatory statements are not meant to point a finger at Republicans, nor do they apply to the religious population as a whole. We are speaking only of those occupying the Hard Right — the extremists who have essentially declared war on pluralism, religious freedom, secularism, humanism, and the separation of church and state. (If you doubt the existence of such a religiously radical right wing, you might want to read these quotes from ‘true believers’ – some of which are rather frightening.)
Are the most vocal, right-leaning representatives of the Religious Right actually proposing a return to Puritanism? Although this notion sounds ridiculous, it might not be such a silly exaggeration.
We begin, as do the arguments of the Evangelical Christians, with the Puritans. When the Puritans arrived in the New World, they established rigidly theocratic societies. As they declared in 1639 in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, “the word of God requires that . . . there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God.” Without any ambiguity, they established their churches as the official state religion, which was directly “supported by tax revenues and defended by the coercive arm of government.” The laws of the early Puritan colonies were expressly justified by reference to specific biblical passages. The state punished blasphemy and aggressively enforced religious doctrine. Citizenship was tied directly to religious faith, and the Puritan settlements were designed with the expectation that “only godly Christians” would rule.
Invoking that past, modern-day Christian evangelicals assert that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but that in recent decades out-of-control secularists have broken faith with our most fundamental traditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Long before the American Revolution, the Puritan vision of a unified and orthodox religious community had proved unattainable. (Geoffrey R. Stone, The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?, UCLA Law Review I ) (NOTE: The specific bibliography references have been retained in this quote; please see the original document for those specific references.)
It may very well be true that a few of the signors of the Declaration of Independence were Christian fundamentalists. However, it cannot be shown that the intent of the Founding Fathers was for our great country to infuse fundamentalist religion into politics, much less that our great pluralistic nation should be framed as being based on a fundamentalist version of a particular religion.
Many of our Founding Fathers, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Gouverneur Morris, were flat-out deists, and many others, such as John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and George Washington, were at least partial deists who accepted most elements of the deist critique. (Geoffrey R. Stone, The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?, UCLA Law Review I )
Thomas Jefferson, though being only one of many important figures in the founding of the U.S., was one of the most respected and revered. Jefferson’s true opinions regarding fundamentalist Christianity are quite clear when we look at the whole of his writings – when we avoid the temptation to highlight only those bits and pieces of his works that might only appear to support a particular view (an intellectually dishonest technique often used by talking heads to influence their followers and other shallow thinkers).
Here is a quote from Thomas Jefferson (in his letter to Benjamin Rush 12 Apr 1803) often used to make him appear to espouse a given version of Christianity (typically, modern Christian fundamentalism):
I am a Christian, in the only sense he [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.
Reading that, how could anyone even suggest that Thomas Jefferson was not a real Christian? Well, it seems to me that Thomas Jefferson was indeed a real Christian – but Jefferson leaves the honest student without any doubt as to his adamant opposition to fundamentalist, Biblical literalist, Calvinist flavors of "Christianity." Jefferson believed proper religion to be a uniquely private, individual matter and often cautioned his fellow Americans against adopting any formal set of broadly accepted religious dogma:
You say that I have been dished up to you as an antifederalist, and ask me if it be just. My opinion was never worthy enough of notice to merit citing; but since you ask it I will tell it you. I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all. Therefore I protest to you I am not of the party of federalists. But I am much farther from that than of the Antifederalists. (Thomas Jefferson in his Letter to Francis Hopkinson dated 13 March 1789)
It didn’t take me long to find a perfect example of an expertly skewed article written from a far-right, religious fundamentalist viewpoint. This article, written by a Calvinist televangelist named D. James Kennedy (DJK), is called “Thomas Jefferson – Deist or Christian?”
This article (Thomas Jefferson – Deist or Christian?) is but one example of many well-written, apparently researched, mildly persuasive (yet, I believe, intellectually disingenuous) articles written to convince readers that Thomas Jefferson was their kind of Christian — or at least that Jefferson was friend to their harsh brand of Christian fundamentalism.
Kennedy reaches the ever-so-predictable conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was not a "genuine" Christian – meaning, of course, that Jefferson did not share the radical, fantastical, illogical, unreasonable fundamentalist Christian views of DJK. Based on Jefferson’s own writings, Jefferson was himself precisely the type of Christian Jesus instructed his followers to be.
Here is my critique of the article by D. James Kennedy (DJK), “Thomas Jefferson – Deist or Christian?” (NOTE: The italicized blockquotes represent the original article in its entirety, with my comments sprinkled liberally throughout.)
Thomas Jefferson – Deist or Christian?
by D. James Kennedy — June 19, 2002
Thomas Jefferson, as we all know, was a skeptic, a man so hostile to Christianity that he scissored from his Bible all references to miracles. He was, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation tells us, “a Deist, opposed to orthodox Christianity and the supernatural.”
Here, DJK is using a popular technique to emphasize what he doesn’t like in order to make it seem more unbelievable and unlikely; his intention was to portray the Deist image of Jefferson as a caricature.
Or was he? While Jefferson has been lionized by those who seek to drive religion from public life, the true Thomas Jefferson is anything but their friend. He was anything but irreligious, anything but an enemy to Christian faith.
DJK – televangelist, religious fundamentalist, and Calvinist – says that Thomas Jefferson was “anything but” – anything but a friend to those who prefer separation of church and state. Carefully read, DJK actually implied that Jefferson was against the separation of church and state – an outrageous claim at the very least. DJK continues to exaggerate: “Anything but irreligious… anything but an enemy to Christian faith.”
Given Jefferson’s low opinion of Calvinism, the mere fact that DJK was a Calvinist provides sufficient knowledge for readers to correctly reject Kennedy’s article immediately and not waste any more time reading the sly diatribe. The truth was this: Thomas Jefferson had such little respect for Calvin and his religious theories he called Calvin an atheist and referred to Calvin’s teachings as the maniac ravings of Calvin. Thomas Jefferson bemoaned how Calvin had “so loaded it [religious teaching] with absurdities and incomprehensibilities, as to drive into infidelity men who had not time, patience, or opportunity to strip it of it’s meretricious trappings[.]” (Source: TJ’s letter to John Davis, dated 18 Jan. 1824)
Our nation’s third president was, in fact, a student of Scripture who attended church regularly, and was an active member of the Anglican Church, where he served on his local vestry. He was married in church, sent his children and a nephew to a Christian school, and gave his money to support many different congregations and Christian causes.
Thomas Jefferson was a student of scripture, absolutely. How could he not be? Since we’re talking about the book that’s supposed to guide our lives (not to mention eternities), it’s a safe bet that any reasonably independent, intelligent, free-thinking person — especially one in such a public position and thus attracting attention and having influence — is going to be a student of scripture and refer to it often. It is impossible to have an understanding of the Bible without being a student of the Bible and reading the Bible thoroughly. (Interestingly, many modern CHristian fundamentalists seemingly fail to do even that.) Thomas Jefferson’s being a student of the the Bible and referring to the Bible often have absolutely nothing to do with whether Jefferson was actually a Biblical literalist and inerrantist. The acts of reading the Bible and referring the Bible provide no clues as to how one chooses to interpret the Bible. (We know quite well that Thomas Jefferson did not interpret the Bible literally.)
The words "attending church regularly" and being an "active member of the Anglican Church" are probably meant to imply that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian. (I would wager that most politicians attend church, for appearances if nothing else; after all, church is still one of the best face-time social networks around.) Whether DJK realized this or not (and he certainly did), the simple fact is that many people that attend church regularly are not "true believers." In our overtly Christian society (comparatively speaking), it is to virtually any politician’s clear advantage to attend church services. In addition to having attended church for years while not being a "true believer" (in the fundie sense of the term), I knew many others who were – and still are – doing the exact same thing. (Don’t worry, friends – my lips are sealed.)
So Thomas Jefferson was married in a church. Are we to believe that everyone married in a Christian church is a Christian fundamentalist or a supporter of religious fundamentalism? Ridiculous. The location of one’s wedding does not necessarily have a thing to do with one’s deeply held beliefs — and neither does the act of sending one’s children to private schools. The schools in question were probably the best private schools around, even if they did happen to preach religious fundamentalism as an unfortunate part of their curricula. (Without a doubt, Jefferson would have preferred that religious dogma not be taught there.)
Moreover, his Notes on Religion, nine documents Jefferson wrote in 1776, are "very orthodox statements about the inspiration of Scripture and Jesus as the Christ," according to Mark Beliles, a Providence Foundation scholar and author of an enlightening essay on Jefferson’s religious life.
DJK is basically saying, "I haven’t read Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Religion, but this religious fellow who has read them says they are orthodox statements…" In other words, DJK is avoiding having to read what Thomas Jefferson really thought about Christian fundamentalism by including a biased quote from another likely religious fundamentalist who may have actually read Jefferson’s Notes on Religion. DJK is essentially separating himself by another degree from Jefferson’s Notes on Religion.
So what about the Jefferson Bible, that miracles-free version of the Scriptures? That, too, is a myth. It is not a Bible, but an abridgement of the Gospels created by Jefferson in 1804 for the benefit of the Indians. Jefferson’s "Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the New Testament for the Use of the Indians" was a tool to evangelize and educate American Indians. There is no evidence that it was an expression of his skepticism.
The Jefferson Bible is most certainly not a myth; the document was quite real. DJK immediately contradicts his statement that the Jefferson Bible is a myth by saying he gave it to the American Indians. Had the Jefferson Bible been only a myth, there would have been no book to deliver to the native Americans.
Why would a supposed "friend" of fundamentalist Christianity not want the American Indians to be exposed to the supernatural aspects of the gospel? Wouldn’t a true religious fundamentalist want the Indians to read the entire set of stories, in order for the Indians to be saved? (To suggest otherwise seems ridiculous, but for someone reading this article quickly, it may not stand out as being the oddity it really is.)
Jefferson, who gave his money to assist missionary work among the Indians, believed his "abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians" would help civilize and educate America’s aboriginal inhabitants. Nor did Jefferson cut all miracles from his work, as Beliles points out. While the original manuscript no longer exists, the Table of Texts that survives includes several accounts of Christ’s healings.
Just a suggestion: Perhaps Jefferson left certain healings intact because the healing of a body – including remission of serious disease – can and does take place naturally, and is not necessarily a supernatural event.
Here are some of Jefferson’s own words about the "mythical" Jefferson Bible, which I have also seen referred to as "Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." (For some reason, Thomas Jefferson did not mention here – or anywhere else, that I can find – that he went to all this trouble to help evangelize a group of American Indians.) Thomas Jefferson:
I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials (The Gospels) which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. It is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a REAL CHRISTIAN, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call ME infidel and THEMSELVES Christians and preachers of the Gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature. (Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Charles Thompson)
Back to DJK:
But didn’t Jefferson believe in the complete separation of church and state? After all, Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Conn., in which he cited the First Amendment’s creation of a "wall of separation" between church and state, is an ACLU proof-text for its claim that the First Amendment makes the public square a religion-free zone. But if the ACLU is right, why, just two days after he sent his letter to the Danbury Baptists did President Jefferson attend public worship services in the U.S. Capitol building, something he did throughout his two terms in office? And why did he authorize the use of the War Office and the Treasury building for church services in Washington, D.C.?
In the above paragraph, DJK is comparing non-mandatory church services being held on public property (trivial) to infusing politics with fundamentalist religion (a genuine concern). While these issues are related – and such church services would probably be adamantly opposed by staunch atheists – having an optional church service in a public building is not really the crux of "separation of church and state," to say the least. If optional church services were the worst possible consequence of a particular religion being infused into politics and governance, we’d have nothing to worry about.
Jefferson’s outlook on religion and government is more fully revealed in another 1802 letter in which he wrote that he did not want his administration to be a "government without religion," but one that would "strengthen … religious freedom."
In the above snippet, DJK is saying basically nothing – except reinforcing the proper view that Thomas Jefferson was indeed a proponent of religious freedom and pluralism: Jefferson’s writings make clear he believed that man should not be judged by his religion (or lack thereof) and should be able to practice any religion, or no religion, if he so chooses.
Jefferson was a true friend of the Christian faith. But was he a true Christian? A nominal Christian – as demonstrated by his lifelong practice of attending worship services, reading the Bible, and following the moral principles of Christ – Jefferson was not, in my opinion, a genuine Christian. In 1813, after his public career was over, Jefferson rejected the deity of Christ. Like so many millions of church members today, he was outwardly religious, but never experienced the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus was necessary to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
If Jefferson were able to defend himself against this opinionated slur of D. James Kennedy, perhaps he would not consider DJK to have been a genuine Christian.
Thomas Jefferson flatly rejected the fundamentalist brand of Christianity peddled by D. James Kennedy.
Nonetheless, Jefferson’s presidential acts would, if done today, send the ACLU marching into court. He signed legislation that gave land to Indian missionaries, put chaplains on the government payroll, and provided for the punishment of irreverent soldiers. He also sent Congress an Indian treaty that set aside money for a priest’s salary and for the construction of a church.
Such anachronistic comparisons are meaningless. The environment of religion and politics today is not the same as it was in the time of Thomas Jefferson.
Most intriguing is the manner in which Jefferson dated an official document. Instead of "in the year of our Lord," Jefferson used the phrase "in the year of our Lord Christ." Christian historian David Barton has the proof – the original document signed by Jefferson on the "eighteenth day of October in the year of our Lord Christ, 1804."
Based on what I’ve learned about Thomas Jefferson, I would not put a lot of meaning into how Jefferson may have dated a particular document. I would tend to put more emphasis on Jefferson’s actual writings about his opinions and viewpoints concerning religion – for example, the detailed advice he gave to his nephew Peter Carr on the proper interpretation of scripture (letter included below).
The Supreme Court ruled in 1947 that Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state "must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." Judging from the record, it looks like the wall some say Tom built is, in fact, the wall Tom breached.
Technically, perhaps; however, D. James Kennedy is actually mocking the basic spirit of the separation of church and state here. Again, the holding of voluntary church services in a public building is nothing compared to the potential horrors of infusing far-right religious fundamentalism into American government.
The real Thomas Jefferson, it turns out, is the ACLU’s worst nightmare.
Relatively speaking, Thomas Jefferson would not be a significant problem for the ACLU at all, given the aforementioned anachronistic comparisons and D. James Kennedy’s mocking trivialization of the principles underlying the separation of church and state.
Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Peter Carr: Jefferson recommends seeking — A serious pursuit of spiritual truth
Thomas Jefferson was adamant about using the light of reason – a standard Deist view – to determine which parts of the Bible to accept as being literal truth. This is clearly evidenced in Thomas Jefferson’s letter from Paris, August 10, 1787, in which Jefferson gave some powerful, reasonable, intelligent advice to his nephew Peter Carr on how to read and interpret the Bible.
You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy and Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?
You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions 1. of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was Punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ.
Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love.
In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision.
When speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.
 Many sincere religious fundamentalists consider religion to be so important that their entire lives are structured around their religious beliefs. It would stand to reason, then, that religion is serious enough to deserve one’s deep consideration and thorough examination. Why, then, do so many people fail to apply basic critical thought to their religious beliefs? It’s truly baffling, but it’s even more unfortunate.
- D. James Kennedy, per Coral Ridge
- D. James Kennedy, per Wikipedia
- Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and referring to Jesus’ biographers
- The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Jefferson Bible)
- Jefferson’s letter to his daughter concerning corruption of Christianity
- Thomas Jefferson on the morals of Jesus
- Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Peter Carr about interpreting the Bible
- Critical thought and religious liberty
- The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation? by Geoffrey R. Stone, UCLA Law Review I (2008) (PDF)
- A critique of Geoffrey Stone’s article (PDF) – points out a few errors in Stone’s article, The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?
- Theocracy Watch
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the Bible was never meant to be interpreted in the literal fashion taught by modern Christian fundamentalists, who cling to a drastically unfortunate perversion of spiritual truth. Modern Christian fundamentalists are imbued with a fear that will not allow them to pursue an objective examination of spiritual truth; they are overly concerned with what others might think. It is far easier and simpler to attend church, adopting the beliefs and traditions of their peers and family of origin. Conformity has largely squashed reason and critical thinking in our society. Don’t be one of them; follow your heart. Have the courage to immerse yourself in your own independent, objective study of truth and reality – just as Thomas Jefferson had the courage to do. If religious fundamentalism rings true, then shouldn’t it stand up to an intellectually honest, unbiased, serious investigation? Think. Does anyone actually believe Jesus – were he here today – would be going to church, watching FOX News, and working 50-hour weeks to earn as much money as possible?
Perhaps DJK was trying to say that Jefferson Bible‘s representing a "Bible" is a myth. Certainly, the so-called Jefferson Bible was not a complete Bible; it focused on the teachings and sayings of Jesus. This has nothing to do with its existence; it was quite real.
Even if Thomas Jefferson really did prepare the document for a group of Indians, how could Jefferson have handed them a myth?