David Barton’s Jefferson
Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in religious history at the University of Chicago. This article was written for "Sightings," a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where it was published on April 30.
Our premier historian of late colonial and early republican America, Gordon Wood, while reviewing a book on Roger Williams warms up readers with references to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’... Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”
If you wanted to promote the idea of “a Christian America,” one which would privilege one religion, a version of Christianity, and de-privilege all others, and if you want to get back to roots and origins, the last of the “founding fathers” on whom you’d concentrate would be Jefferson. Yet the most ardent public and pop advocate of privilege and virtual establishment, David Barton, cites Jefferson for Bartonian positions which are directly opposite of Jefferson’s. Never heard of David Barton? Most of the historians you would ever meet never heard of him, and if you told them about him and his positions, they would yawn or rage about listing him among those who deal honestly with Jefferson.
Sightings does not over-do ad hominem and sneering references, so we leave to others all the disdaining that Barton so richly merits. Do note, however, that he has invented a case and product which serve his viewpoint and draw him enormous followings among “conservative” factions which oppose separation of church and state in most cases except those they choose. Listen to Mike Huckabee or Glenn Beck or rightist cable TV and you will find Barton showing up everywhere.
His favorite founder seems to be Jefferson, of all people. How does he work his way around to the prime builder of “a wall of separation between church and state,” in the metaphor that would not be my favorite. Sample: Thomas Jefferson, razor in hand snipped all supernatural references out of his copies of the Gospels (in the four languages he read in White House evenings), to keep Jesus as a pure ethical humanist. This spring Barton is publishing The Jefferson Lies, which most historians would title Barton’s Lies about Jefferson. Astonishingly, he twists a slight reference to Jefferson’s book on Jesus and turns it into a tract which, Barton says, Jefferson would use in order to convert the Indians to Christianity. Reviewer Craig Ferhman in the Los Angeles Times found all that Barton found to be “outrageous fabrication.” On TV, Barton even said, with no evidence, that Jefferson gave a copy of his Jesus book to a missionary, to use “as you evangelize the Indians.” Had the Indians been converted with that text, their heirs would have had no place to go but to what became the humanist wing of the Unitarian-Universalist church.
Why does any of this matter? One, basic honesty is at issue; do American religionists need to invent such stories in order to prevail? Two, what if they did prevail? Most of the founders thought that religion was most honest and compelling when its leaders and gatherings did not depend upon lies about the state and, of course, upon the state itself. “Separation of church and state” is admittedly a complex issue, dealing as it does with inevitable conflict and messiness in a free and lively republic. May debates over it go on, but with honest references to Jefferson and his colleagues and not on the grounds David Barton proposes.
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