Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jan/12

22

Twisting Thomas Jefferson

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Occasions such as the National Prayer Breakfast are not the sort of thing that I spend a lot of (or any) time worrying about. If that’s what politicians want to show up to a harmless, by now somewhat traditional, civic ritual, that’s fine. It’s a free country. But it seems like the people organizing this event are not above bearing a little false (or misleading) witness, and that’s a shame:

Doubting Thomas at Secular News Daily takes up the story:

This year’s invitation…is festooned with quotes from presidents lauding the role of the Bible in public life.

Among those quoted is Thomas Jefferson.

“In extracting the pure principles which Jesus taught,” the Jefferson quote says, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled…. there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

If you read the quote without knowing its origins, it looks like Jefferson is praising the teachings of Jesus. And in the context of the prayer breakfast program, there is the implication that these teachings should be integrated into government policy.

Jefferson was praising Jesus – sort of. He was praising his personal interpretation of Jesus. And that Jesus is one the Family and its Religious Right allies would never acknowledge or accept.

On Oct. 13, 1813, Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter to his friend John Adams, outlining his latest project. It involved cutting up copies of the New Testament and tossing all of the stuff about Jesus that Jefferson did not accept – mainly claims of his divinity and the miracles.

“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught,” Jefferson wrote, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus…. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Jefferson went on to write, “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.”

The Prayer Breakfast invitation – currently circulating on Capitol Hill — thus selectively edits Jefferson’s passage to remove his criticism of greedy, power-hungry clergy and cover up his Bible-cutting project…

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2 comments

  • Lulu · January 23, 2012 at 4:17 am

    Unfortunately, there’s a long tradition of very conservative evangelicals wanting to read only Jesus’ words from the Bible just as Jefferson recommends. Even those texts with Jesus’ words in red? Accomplishing the same effect. So I’m not sure Jefferson’s Bible-cutting project is going to offend the people you think it would.

  • Patrick Lee · January 23, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    For an accurate presentation of Jefferson’s views, read his blog at http://ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com/blog/
    Several times each week he posts briefly on a variety of topics, including religion.

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