Sunday, August 11, 2013
Holding Jesus At Arm’s Length
I’ve been reading correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I’m not sure why letters are so interesting to me. Well, perhaps I do know why they are. Part of the reason may be that my siblings and I were taught very strictly not to read the mail of others; not even a post card. Prohibitions of that kind usually serve only to increase curiosity. But the greater reason that correspondences are interesting is that they often catch the writers expressing their honest opinions assuming, as they have a right to do, that what they write will not be divulged to others – in their lifetime at least.
So it is with Adams and Jefferson. Adams appears much more willing to open up with his friend, Jefferson, from the very start of their correspondence. Jefferson, initially, was holding back some if my reading of the sense of his letters is correct. Both men were eager, in their old age (they were writing in the last decade and a half of their lives, from 1812 forward) to cement their place in the history of the founding of the United States. Adams apparently felt that the way to do that was to explain himself; Jefferson, to keep his counsel. But gradually Adams drew Jefferson out into a more frank and open discussion.
The particular letters I’m reading is a collection of exchanges, primarily on the subject of religion and its effect upon the ethical, moral, and political behaviors of mankind. Both men believed that all of the major religions of the world, “Christianism” not excepted, were badly corrupted, no longer representing the pure, simple, and useful teachings of their founders. Pertaining to Christianity, both Adams and Jefferson were anti-Papist (anti-Catholic) but concluded that Protestantism, in all its varied forms, was little behind the Catholics in the corruptions added to the pure religion of Jesus.
And they did profess a belief in the “pure religion of Jesus,” uncorrupted by accretions which they claimed occurred long after Jesus was on earth.
Adams argued that none of the Gospels or the Epistles or the Revelation were products of the first century a.d. and consequently they represented a badly flawed record of the true life and teaching of Jesus.
Jefferson strenuously resisted any suggestion of the supernatural in the life of Jesus. He believed, as many before him and many after him have believed, that by eliminating those elements of the Gospels that offend the intellect of modern man, a picture of the “real Jesus” would appear. In pursuit of that goal he had literally cut from the Gospel’s all the elements that he considered fanciful and untrue, leaving him with a pasted up Gospel of fewer than 50 pages.
There is so much to appreciate in John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They are two among the many who put their lives on the line in order to establish the nation we now live in. Curiously, they differed with each other about many of the basic concepts that should underlie our nation but they were able, in the early years of their friendship, and again in the last decade of their lives, to put aside those differences in pursuit of “a more perfect union.” Sadly, many who followed them – even in our day – lack the wisdom, or unselfishness to do the same.
But Adams and Jefferson (and others of the “founding fathers”) varied greatly in the wisdom they applied to those areas of their lives not associated with the Revolution or the establishment of the nation. Their opinions on religion are just one example. Both Jefferson and Adam held opinions on science and medicine that would be laughable if proposed today. And likewise their opinions on religion reveal, in some cases, excusable ignorance of facts. They show, as well, prejudices that would ignite a fire storm of criticism in today’s world. But mostly their correspondence reveals a naïve belief that they could emasculate the “book” that purports to be the revelation of God in Jesus and still be Christians.
Both men were jealous of their reputations as “founders” of the nation. Both men had some reason to believe that they were living in the shadow of George Washington, and that others like James Madison, and James Monroe were competitors in the race to be remembered as most influential in those early formative years of the nation.
Jefferson had the misfortune to be off in France, serving as an Ambassador, when the Constitution was being written and ratified. Though he was known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, that document, for all the glory that it has retained over the years, had – and still has – no legal standing. No one can claim, in court – even before the Supreme Court – that any of their rights, granted under the Declaration of Independence, were violated. We have no rights granted by the Declaration of Independence. So Jefferson’s brilliant efforts in writing that document were ultimately overshadowed by the founding document of the nation, The Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
Adams too suffered a misfortune, becoming the first President to serve only one term, thanks to Jefferson who defeated him in his bid for a second term in a campaign that would rival the last two that we have seen in our day for the calumny practiced.
So both men were working hard in their last years to set the record straight and show that they were on a par with Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Monroe. And in that struggle it was as essential then, as it is now, to appear to be Christian. Thus, though neither man could honestly profess to believe the Biblical record of Jesus’ life, they clung to a Jesus of their own making. Or more accurately, they held the orthodox Jesus at arm’s length, unwilling to be contaminated by what they saw as intellectually unworthy claims about his divinity and his miracle-laden journey on earth, still needing him, though, as a part of the resume that would gain them access to the Patriot’s Hall of Fame.
There is a great desire on the part of conservative Christians (who are, in our day, predominantly Republican in their politics) to make of our founding fathers orthodox Christian men. Some were. But most were not, and there is good reason (good evidence) to show that none of the major players held orthodox Christian beliefs, especially if orthodoxy is to be defined in terms acceptable to current Evangelical Christians. Still nearly all of them, as far as I know, believed in a Supreme Being, the creator of heaven and earth. They were, and both Jefferson and Adams called themselves, Deists. But they also coveted the designation “Christian.” It was as important to their electability and their later reputation as it is for politicians today to be known as Christian.
But our founders purposely wrote into the Constitution a clause protecting the right of any citizen to seek public office regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. In Article VI, Paragraph 3 they declared:
"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." (Bolding added to identify the pertinent section.)
It is impossible to know whether a candidate for public office is a Christian, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Atheist. They may make profession of such beliefs but be as Adams and Jefferson were, holding their religion with great reservations, or as may have been the case with others, simply not believing it at all.
So, my point, long in arriving, is that we need to select our public servants on their merits as best we can know them and let them be free to exercise their belief, if they have one, sincerely without prejudicing their “right” to serve their community or nation. We should not force anyone to endorse a belief, or appear to endorse one, with which their conscience is at odds; they should not have to hold Jesus, or any other religious leader, at arm’s length.