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Let's not write Jefferson and his American gospel out of history

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Victoria Safford
Victoria Safford is minister of the White Bear Lake Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi. The Unitarian Universalist Association holds its general assembly in Minneapolis beginning today.
Photo Courtesy of Victoria Safford

A couple of months ago, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that manages to remove Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The board replaced Jefferson with St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, among others. 

Jefferson, who coined the phrase "wall of separation" between church and state, has been accused by detractors from his own lifetime to the present day of being an atheist, a Deist, a devil-worshipper, a Free-Thinker corrupted by the French, a Unitarian and the Anti-Christ (for some, these terms are synonymous).  Whether he was any of these things, one thing is certain: He believed in the imperative of religious freedom.  In 1784 he wrote: 

"Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. ... Is uniformity attainable?  Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity.  What have been the effects of coercion?  To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites."

Is America a Christian nation?  There's no question the framers of the Constitution and the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote and spoke of God.  Historians argue about whether they meant to make a Christian revolution here or whether they were Christians by default, in the same way that they were racists by default and chauvinists by default -- captives (for all their talk of freedom) of their own context, as people always are, unable to imagine completely the very liberty they were inventing. 

Jefferson, for his part, clearly rejected the "creed" of Christ while embracing the teachings of Jesus. Jefferson took a razor to his copy of the gospels and cut out all the miracles, all the layers of theology and politics. The resulting text was very sparse, a difficult, beautiful teaching. Eric Reese, in his book, "American Gospel," boils Jefferson's Christian ethics down to bullet points:

Be just; justice comes from virtue, which comes from the heart.

Treat people the way we want them to treat us.

Always work for peaceful resolutions, even to the point of returning violence with compassion.

Consider valuable the things that have no material value.

Not let the pursuit of wealth or the accumulation of possessions distract us from an authentic life, a true sense of being.

Not judge others.

Not bear grudges.

Be modest and unpretentious.

Give out of true generosity, not because we expect to be repaid.

This "American gospel" grew up concurrently in the young republic with America's other national religion, the grim, looming shadow of Puritanism and Calvinism. They are exact opposites, these two gospels, the one creative and wild and open to ideas, innovation, science and nature; the other guarded and closed, afraid of the body, afraid of the mind, afraid of the soul that could take off and soar. 

It's as if we have had two theme songs, two national religious anthems ringing simultaneously in our ears for 300 years. They grew up here together, descendants of a much older theological debate. 

The roots of the debate reach all the way back to the Council of Nicaea in 325, almost 17 centuries ago. That's where it was decided that Jesus was not human but fully divine. It's easy to forget that this most essential tenet of Christian belief was determined by a ballot measure -- no angels, no burning bush to mark the spot, just politics and theology, and a secretary who took good minutes.  

No one knows how many were present at the Council of Nicaea, but we do know there were two dissenting votes. Those delegates lost the referendum, but their idea persisted. The question persists to this day, and it is more important than the answer.  Keeping questions open, ideas open, minds open, the windows of the house of faith open, is still and always important. 

In his time, it's doubtful that Jefferson could have imagined the wide range of theological approaches among contemporary Americans. What he did imagine was the possibility of a world that could expand beyond his own imagination, a world constructed not of fixed and rigid answers, but of beautiful, open and evolving questions: the world where, thanks to him and his fellow framers, we are privileged to live now. 

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Victoria Safford is minister of the White Bear Lake Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi. The Unitarian Universalist Association holds its general assembly in Minneapolis beginning today.