The religious right insists that the United States was founded as a Christian nation based on biblical principles. A chief obstacle to this claim is Thomas Jefferson, the most eloquent champion among the founding fathers of strict separation of church and state. An obvious way to remove that obstacle would be to redefine Jefferson as an orthodox Christian who used government to promote the cause of Christianity. So argues the influential evangelical Christian, self-described historian and religious educator David Barton in his best-selling 2012 book The Jefferson Lies, the latest of his books pushing the “Christian nation” perspective. Barton has won praise from such prominent right-wing figures as Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck and Tea Party activists.
But The Jefferson Lies drew withering fire from historians and Jefferson scholars, in particular evangelical Christians. In August, responding to these scholars’ documented critique, the Christian book publisher Thomas Nelson withdrew The Jefferson Lies from publication, justifying that rare and startling action by admitting that factual distortions pervade the book. To cite three of many examples:
• Contrary to what Barton says, Jefferson described his religious faith in 1803 to a friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”
• Contrary to what Barton says, Jefferson rejected the Bible because he deemed it corrupted by priestcraft; he prepared his own version of the New Testament, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, excising all miracles from the virgin birth to the resurrection and stressing Jesus’ sermons and parables.
• Contrary to what Barton says, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia as one of the world’s first institutions of higher learning with no ties to any religious denomination, lacking even a professor of theology.
This tug of war over Jefferson matters because, as the George and Ira Gershwin of American thought, Jefferson wrote the words and the music for our highest ideals. Indeed, when we take Jefferson to task (for owning slaves, for example), we do so based on standards that he defined. Americans want to “get right” with Jefferson, citing him to support causes spanning the political spectrum. Was he a foe of corporations or of federal power? Was he for or against separation of church and state or an active role for religion in public education? Was he a Christian, a deist or an atheist? And what kind of nation did Jefferson and the other founding fathers create?
Jefferson also can be seen as a proxy for the United States. Those who, like Barton, see the United States as a Christian nation argue that only devotion to biblical Christianity can maintain American liberty. By rejecting “our biblical foundations,” these critics insist, those favoring separation of church and state would destroy the United States. Given Jefferson’s centrality to the American founding, Barton must sweep Jefferson aside or remake him in his own image.
The problem with Barton’s revisionist version of Jefferson is that it denies a central Jeffersonian value: creating a secular politics enshrining separation of church and state. To be sure, Jefferson was not consistent about this goal. President Jefferson declared, for example, that the First Amendment “erects a wall of separation between church and state.” And yet he spent federal funds to finance Christian missionaries’ work to convert Native American peoples and allowed church services in the U.S. Capitol—although Jefferson spent that money to achieve the secular purpose of promoting peace with Native Americans, not the religious purpose of spreading Christianity. And he allowed church services in the Capitol because Washington, DC, had no other place for congregations to worship.
Jefferson’s separationist vision fostered the flourishing of American religious diversity, and American Jews are only one of many groups benefiting from that vision. With James Madison, Jefferson deserves credit for the American founding’s most revolutionary aspect—the creation of a secular political realm where people of all faiths and no faith can come together and argue about what this country means and should be. That realm is antithetical to claims that the United States is a Christian nation.
And, especially during a tempestuous presidential election in which the American republic’s nature and future are so bitterly disputed, that is why the continued attempts by the Christian right to write Jefferson’s true beliefs out of history should worry all of us.
R. B. Bernstein is Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School. His books include The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009) and Thomas Jefferson (2003).