Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Answering Roger Kimball

Thanks to Michael Heath for pointing out a response to my post about Bush’s speechwriters editing out a key portion of a Jefferson quote that I had not seen. The response is from Roger Kimball at Pajamas Media. I left most of this as a comment, but I’m also reprinting it here for my readers. Kimball writes:

“Leaving aside the question of who it is who advocates “nothing if not monkish ignorance and superstition,” I feel it worth pointing out that Jefferson’s attitude towards religion was not quite so cut and dried-nor so uniformly hostile-as some secularists would have us believe.”

And I quite agree with him. Had he taken the time to read more than just this one post before lumping me in with these unnamed “secularists” (a word which can mean all or nothing depending on the person it is aimed by or at), he would find that I quite agree with this statement. I have, for example, blasted Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for suggesting recently that Jefferson was some sort of closet atheist, an absolutely absurd suggestion. I have also argued long and loudly that Jefferson was not a deist, as so many historians imagine. Jefferson clearly believed in a personal, benevolent, interventionist god and was therefore a theist. I have long argued that the most apt description of Jefferson’s views is the term “theistic rationalist,” which was coined by the Christian historian Gregg Frazer.

“Jefferson’s anti-clericalism-it was an unattractive part of his Enlightenment kit-is well known. But if Bush’s speech writer’s omitted a bit about “monkish ignorance,” secularists often quote Jefferson’s brusque dismissal of religion in Notes on the State of Virginia (“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”) But they somehow never get around to quoting the passage that occurs a few pages later: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are the gift of God?”"

I would not regard this statement by Jefferson to be a “brusque dismissal of religion” at all; it doesn’t even address the truth or validity of religion, only the question of whether another person’s rejection of religion harms anyone and might therefore be the sort of thing the government should take an interest in. Anyone, secularist or otherwise, who quotes that statement as a brusque dismissal of religion is fooling themselves. And I, in fact, have quoted the latter statement from Jefferson many times, usually in arguing against the notion that Jefferson was either a deist or an atheist.

Those who claim that Jefferson’s various statements about “monkish ignorance” or a “priest-ridden people” were merely anti-Catholic statements are wrong, in my view. Jefferson was not merely working in the tradition of anti-Catholic Protestantism, he rejected nearly everything about Protestant doctrine as well – the virgin birth, original sin, the atonement, the inspiration of the Bible, the miracles, the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus (and whether he had ever claimed to be divine). It was not mere anti-Catholicism that led Jefferson to declare that Paul was “the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus” or the gospel writers a “band of dupes and imposters” full of “unlettered and ignorant men.”

While we’re on the subject of quotes often ripped from context, however, I should note that few people have bothered to recognize at whom the famous quote on the Jefferson monument – “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” – was aimed. He wrote that infamous phrase in a letter to Benjamin Rush in September of 1800, during the bitter election of 1800 against John Adams. The folks at whom this comment was aimed were the Protestant clergy of the day, particularly the Episcopalians and Congregationalists, who demanded that their religions have government establishments. Here’s the fuller quote in context:

“The delusion into which the X.Y.Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me…”

There are two primary mistakes made on both sides by those who consider Jefferson’s rejection of nearly all the central doctrines of Christianity, his hostility toward revealed religion (which he argued was bad because it led to atheism, incidentally) and his innumerable statements about the dangers of religion wedded to political power. Those on the left tend to presume that this means Jefferson rejected theism itself, which is absolutely false. Those on the right tend to dismiss it as mere anti-Catholic prejudice left over from the Enlightenment. Both are wrong.

As president, as Gertrude Himmelfarb notes in her superb book The Roads to Modernity, Jefferson was even more respectful of religion, and specifically Christianity, as the foundation of liberty and public virtue. On his way to church one Sunday, Jefferson was met by a friend:

“You going to church Mr. J. You do not believe a word in it.”

“Sir [Jefferson replied], no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir.”

That he quotes this from Gertrude Himmelfarb is a bit disturbing to me; of all people, Himmelfarb is a good enough historian not to repeat this story quite so credulously (and perhaps, in context, she did not; I have not seen her telling of the story in context so I cannot tell). At any rate, the validity of this story is highly suspect. The only source for it is a third person retelling of it from the Rev. Ethan Allen (not to be confused with the leader of the Green Mountain Boys), who refers to a note from J.P. Ingle.

Ingle, according to Allen, tells the story of he and John Underwood having witnessed this alleged conversation in 1801. But Ingle would have been all of 10 years old in 1801, while Underwood would have been 5 years old. A third person retelling, 56 years later, of an overheard conversation when the witness was merely 10 years old – especially when the quote attributed so clearly conflicts with innumerable statements both about the nature of Christianity and about its necessity for virtue – is more than a bit suspect. It’s not the sort of evidence taken seriously by historians, nor should it be.