We Can Tear Down False Idols of History. Thomas Jefferson Did it to Jesus ChristRoundup
tags: religion, Christianity, Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Bible
Peter Manseau is the curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian and the author most recently of The Jefferson Bible: A Biography.
When the move to topple monuments to the Confederacy expanded toward taking down other figures in American history like Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, the Trump administration spoke out.
“We’re being told that George Washington’s statue needs to come and Thomas Jefferson’s statue needs to come down,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany warned in June. “Where do you draw the line?”
But Jefferson understood the desire to undo acts of deification gone awry and might have a surprising answer for our present day. Faced with the question of what one should do when tributes bestowed by tradition were unsupported by history, Jefferson metaphorically toppled the most sacred object of his day, the Bible, when he drew lines with a penknife through a book others believed to be the word of God.
Exactly 200 years ago, Jefferson completed his “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” commonly known as the Jefferson Bible. As a critique of a dominant ideology, the book courted controversy that made razing shrines to racists seem tame. Jefferson specifically removed parts of scripture that most Americans, then and now, viewed as an unvarnished history of Jesus Christ.
Jefferson saw things differently. Although he thought some of the New Testament offered “a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man,” he considered much of it a product of “stupidity” and “roguery.” As he wrote to John Adams, “It is as easy to separate those parts as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
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