I have obtained a copy of David Barton’s new book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. I haven’t read the entire tome yet but did spend some time leafing through it last night. Within half an hour I had noticed several outrageous distortions of the truth.
That’s not surprising since Barton, a Texas-based “Christian nation” propagandist, has been spreading fundamentalist misinformation about the nation’s founding for years. He’s no historian; his only earned degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University. But that hasn’t stopped his WallBuilders outfit from convincing many evangelical Christians that the Religious Right’s version of America was intended by the Founders from the start.
Today is Jefferson’s birthday, so it’s an appropriate occasion to rise to his defense against people like Barton who are trying to covert our third president into an 18th-century Religious Right zealot. With that thought in mind, here are some of the lies Barton is spreading about Jefferson:
Jefferson arranged to have a Bible printed by the federal government. Barton writes that Jefferson “personally helped finance the printing of one of America’s groundbreaking editions of the Bible.” He mentions that John Adams was also involved in the project. The clear implication is that these government leaders wanted to see the Bible printed and promoted at public expense.
What really happened is much more mundane: A man named Robert Aiken printed 10,000 Bibles at his own expense. He advertised it beforehand, and Jefferson placed an order for one – much like a person today might pre-order a book. It’s not surprising that Jefferson ordered a copy of this Bible, as he collected Bibles and enjoyed comparing translations. Under Barton’s theory, if I go to Amazon.com and place an order for a book that’s due out next month, I’m helping to publish it.
Barton never mentions Aiken by name and fails to tell the whole story: Aiken hounded Congress incessantly to pay for the printing of his Bible, but Congress refused. The project was a bust. Aiken sold some copies of the Bible but ended up discarding a lot of them. (I acknowledge a debt here to Chris Rodda at Liars for Jesus who has done a lot of research on Aiken and has debunked other Barton claims.)
Jefferson produced a special edition of the Bible to evangelize Native Americans. For many years, Jefferson worked on a private edition of the Gospels for his own study. His “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” completed in 1820, is well known, but there was an earlier attempt. This was an 1804 version that Jefferson called “The Philosophy of Jesus.” On a title page, Jefferson called the tome “an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.”
Barton is too dense to grasp that Jefferson might not have meant this literally. Many scholars believe the reference to “Indians” was an inside joke: The “Indians” were really obtuse fundamentalist clergy in New England who were Jefferson’s political foes. They were the ones who found Jefferson’s interpretation of the Bible “beyond the level of their comprehensions.” (Another possibility is that Jefferson, who was president in 1804, used the “Indians” language as political cover in case the book should be discovered. Remember, the fundamentalist clergy of New England hated Jefferson and had accused him of atheism.)
Whatever the case, the book was never distributed to Native Americans or anyone else. Jefferson made it clear to his friends that the volume was for his private study. More to the point, a book stripping away much of Christian dogma and portraying Jesus as a mere moral teacher and not the divine son of God would have been an odd vehicle for converting Indians (or anyone) to evangelical Christianity.
Jefferson intended for the separation of church and state to protect only churches from state intrusion. Barton has cleaned up some of the grotesque errors about Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists that marked his earlier works. But he still spews misinformation about this important missive. He fails to grasp – or will not admit – that the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut were living under an oppressive union of church and state and wanted to get out from under it. They looked to Jefferson as an ally.
Jefferson valued religious freedom, and he understood that one way to protect it was to stop the state from enforcing theology. Barton simplistically looks at church-state separation as an either/or proposition: The doctrine must protect either the rights of the church or the state. He won’t admit that it does both. Jefferson knew that. It’s why he personally drafted legislation to disestablish the state church in Virginia and fought all of his life to protect people from government-imposed religion.
Jefferson was a devout, orthodox Christian. The supreme irony of Barton’s book is that he spends page after page arguing that Jefferson was a devout, conservative Christian, but then is forced to abandon the argument because he simply can’t explain away the many letters and essays Jefferson wrote stating his disbelief in core Christian doctrines like the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and the resurrection.
How does Barton deal with this? He asserts that Jefferson was a conservative Christian for most of his life but near the end fell under the sway of preachers in central Virginia who held unorthodox views. This does a great disservice to Jefferson’s intellect. Jefferson grappled with theological issues all of his life, as evidenced by his obsession with rewriting the Gospels and his interest in comparing the morals of Jesus to ancient teachers like Socrates, Seneca and Cicero. He was never one to believe something simply because a preacher told him it was true.
Rather than attempt to pigeonhole Jefferson, Barton would do better to accept the Sage of Monticello’s own words about his religious beliefs: “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
Unlike Barton’s previous works, which were self-published, The Jefferson Lies is issued by Thomas Nelson, a firm that publishes Bibles, curriculum materials and works of interest to conservative Christians. This might give the book a deeper market penetration than Barton’s earlier books. That would be a shame, because The Jefferson Lies is little more than a form of historical creationism.
P.S. Celebrate Jefferson’s birthday by reading his real views on religious freedom and church-state separation. We’ve compiled some of his best thinking here.