It’s true that most of the men associated with the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the first Congress considered themselves to be Christian. However, then – as now – not everyone agreed on what it meant to be a Christian.
The same man who wrote the Declaration of Independence with such beautiful references to God and our Creator was vilified by religious conservatives as being anti-Christian when he ran for president at the beginning of the 19th century.
“Some clergyman warned their parishioners that they should hide their Bibles if Jefferson became President, and that such an electoral outcome might bring down God’s wrath on the new Republic…. A widely distributed pamphlet [proclaimed] that ‘the election of any man avowing the principles of Mr. Jefferson would … destroy religion, introduce immorality and loosen all the bonds of society’” (p.20).
Yet Jefferson called himself a Christian. “I am a Christian, in the only sense he [Jesus] wished anyone 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” (p. 25).
You see, Thomas Jefferson believed that Jesus lived and taught and had aspects of his life and teachings recorded by his followers. But on the basis of human reason and his own conscience – which he valued more than the teachings of the Bible – Jefferson could not accept the idea that Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose again to conquer sin and death. Jefferson went through the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and literally cut out the parts he agreed with and pasted them into his own book. He called that book “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” and it later became known as “The Jefferson Bible.”
Today, there are many people who think it is enough to believe in the moral teachings of Jesus, to value him highly as a teacher and a role model. Add in the moral laws of the Old Testament and we have the foundations for a good, peaceful, “Christian” society, one likely to be blessed by our Creator who, after all, endowed us with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Unfortunately, it’s in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and others like him, that we find this view of God and of Jesus. It isn’t in the Bible – not unless you take it apart line by line and discard all the parts you don’t like or that don’t fit with your view of how the world should be.
Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. I applaud him as a masterful statesman and a strong leader for our infant nation. But, whatever he called himself, I cannot agree that Jefferson was a Christian or that anything he wrote spoke of Christian truths.
Christianity is about much more than acknowledging there is a God, accepting the truth of Jesus’ life on earth, or even being a fan of his teachings. To be a Christian is to acknowledge Jesus CHRIST as the Savior of your soul and the King of your life. Christians are, first and foremost, members of God’s Kingdom, and that Kingdom should never be confused with or entwined with any human nation on earth – no matter what our Founding Fathers thought.
Harry Rubenstein and Barbara Clark Smith, “History of the Jefferson Bible” in The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition, Smithsonian Institute, 2011.