This is too hilarious:
Several professors on Grounds collaborated to write a letter to University President Teresa Sullivan against the inclusion of a Thomas Jefferson quote in her post-election email Nov. 9.
In the email, Sullivan encouraged students to unite in the wake of contentious results, arguing that University students have the responsibility of creating the future they want for themselves.
“Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes,’” Sullivan said in the email. “I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.”
Some professors from the Psychology Department — and other academic departments — did not agree with the use of this quote. Their letter to Sullivan argued that in light of Jefferson’s owning of slaves and other racist beliefs, she should refrain from quoting Jefferson in email communications.
“We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it,” the letter read. “For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
The letter garnered 469 signatures — from both students and professors — before being sent out via email Nov. 11. Signees included Politics Prof. Nicholas Winter, Psychology Prof. Chad Dodson, Women, Gender and Sexuality Prof. Corinne Field, College Assistant Dean Shilpa Davé, Politics Prof. Lynn Sanders and many more. Asst. Psychology Prof. Noelle Hurd drafted the letter. Continue reading
I feel an urgency to note what I deem an error in it, the more requiring notice as your opinion is strengthened by that of many others. You seem in pages 84. & 148. to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions: a very dangerous doctrine indeed and one which would place us under the despotism of an Oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. they have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privileges of their corps. Their maxim is ‘boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionim,’ and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The constitution has erected no such single tribunal knowing that, to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time & party it’s members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves. If the legislature fails to pass laws for a census, for paying the judges & other officers of government, for establishing a militia, for naturalization, as prescribed by the constitution, or if they fail to meet in Congress, the judges cannot issue their Mandamus to them. If the President fails to supply the place of a judge, to appoint other civil or military officers, to issue requisite commissions, the judges cannot force him. They can issue their Mandamus or distringas to no Executive or Legislative officer to enforce the fulfillment of their official duties, any more than the President or legislature may issue orders to the judges or their officers. Betrayed by English example, & unaware, as it should seem, of the control of our constitution in this particular, they have at times overstepped their limit by undertaking to command executive officers in the discharge of their executive duties. But the constitution, in keeping the three departments distinct & independant, restrains the authority of the judges to judiciary organs, as it does the executive & legislative, to executive and legislative organs. The judges certainly have more frequent occasion to act on constitutional questions, because the laws of meum & teum, and of criminal action, forming the great mass of the system of law, constitute their particular department. When the legislative or executive functionaries act unconstitutionally, they are responsible to the people in their elective capacity. The exemption of the judges from that is quite dangerous enough. I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
Thomas Jefferson to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820
Thomas Jefferson remained enamored of the French Revolution long after most of the Founding Fathers, sickened by the atrocities of the Revolution, became critics of it. Jefferson was the American Minister to France at the start of the Revolution, and here is his account of the storming of the Bastille:
On the 14th, they send one of their members (Monsieur de Corny, whom we knew in America) to the Hotel des Invalides to ask arms for their Garde Bourgeoise. He was followed by, or he found there, a great mob. The Governor of the Invalids came out and represented the impossibility of his delivering arms without the orders of those from whom he received them.
De Corney advised the people then to retire, retired himself, and the people took possession of the arms. It was remarkable that not only the Invalids themselves made no opposition, but that a body of 5000 foreign troops, encamped within 400 yards, never stirred.
Monsieur de Corny and five others were then sent to ask arms of Monsieur de Launai, Governor of the Bastille. They found a great collection of people already before the place, and they immediately planted a flag of truce, which was answered by a like flag hoisted on the parapet. The deputation prevailed on the people to fall back a little, advanced themselves to make their demand of the Governor, and in that instant a discharge from the Bastille killed 4. people of those nearest to the deputies. The deputies retired, the people rushed against the place, and almost in an instant were in possession of a fortification, defended by 100 men, of infinite strength, which in other times had stood several regular sieges and had never been taken. How they got in, has as yet been impossible to discover. Those, who pretend to have been of the party tell so many different stories as to destroy the credit of them all.
They took all the arms, discharged the prisoners and such of the garrison as were not killed in the first moment of fury, carried the Governor and Lieutenant governor to the Greve (the place of public execution) cut off their heads, and set them through the city in triumph to the Palais royal. Continue reading
On August 10, 1815, Thomas Jefferson set pen to paper to respond to John Adams’ letter to him of July 30, 1815. Go here to read that letter. Jefferson was no more optimistic than Adams that a true history of the American Revolution could be written:
On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? who can write it? and who ever will be able to write it? nobody; except merely it’s external facts. all it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown. Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you & I know, never made such speeches. in this he has followed the example of the antients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. the work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. it’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him. I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, altho’ I never read it through. but a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went thro’ it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. but on the questions of Independance and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes & voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. on the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. on the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. but the whole of my notes on the question of independance does not occupy more than 5. pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets. they have never been communicated to any one. do you know that there exists in MS. the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788.? the whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by mr Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? these people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred. Continue reading
John Adams often groused that the true history of the American Revolution would never be written. Considering this, it is somewhat surprising that he did not undertake the task himself. He had ample time after his Presidency, and his lively and copious correspondence indicates that age had not lessened his skill with a pen. It is possible that he simply viewed it as an impossible task, as he indicated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on July 30, 1815:
Dear Sir Quincy July 30th 1815
Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?
The most essential documents, the debates & deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever. Mr Dickinson printed a speech, which he said he made in Congress against the Declaration of Independence; but it appeared to me very different from that, which you, and I heard. Dr Witherspoon has published speeches which he wrote beforehand, and delivered Memoriter, as he did his Sermons. But these I believe, are the only speeches ever committed to writing. The Orators, while I was in Congress from 1774 to 1778 appeared to me very universally extemporaneous, & I have never heard of any committed to writing before or after delivery.
These questions have been suggested to me, by a Review, in the Analectic Magazine for May 1815, published in Philadelphia, page 385 of the Chevalier Botta’s “Storia della Guerra Americana.” The Reviewers inform us, that it is the best history of the revolution that ever has been written. This Italian Classick has followed the example, of the Greek and Roman Historians, by composing speeches, for his Generals and Orators. The Reviewers have translated, one of Mr R H Lee, in favour of the declaration of Independence. A splendid morcell of oratory it is; how faithful, you can judge.
I wish to know your sentiments, and opinions of this publication. Some future Miss Porter, may hereafter, make as shining a romance, of what passed in Congress, while in Conclave, as her Scottish Chiefs.
On May 8, 1825, near the close of his life, in a letter to Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson discussed the Declaration of Independence:
Of the paper you mention, purporting to be instructions to the Virginia delegation in Congress, I have no recollection. If it were anything more than a project of some private hand, that is to say, had any such instructions been ever given by the convention, they would appear in the journals, which we possess entire. But with respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. The historical documents which you mention as in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.
I have long been amused by how often the phenomenon of synchronicity has reared its head in my life. Synchronicity is a coincidence of events that seem to be meaningfully related. Jungian theory hails synchronicity as an explanatory principle on the same order as causality. Throughout my life I have seen events arise that seem completely unrelated but suddenly a connection appears.
Yesterday I had posts fisking anti-Catholic bigot Jami Stiehm here, and a post on the Ursuline nuns and their role in the battle of New Orleans here. Today Ed Morrissey at Hot Air supplies the connection between the two:
Arguing that Jefferson would cheer federal dictates on the choices of health insurance for nuns is therefore either high ignorance or deliberate obtuseness. In fact, we have a historical record for Jefferson’s thoughts on the freedom of religious expression specifically for Catholic nuns, in his own hand. Joanne McPortland reminded us of this yesterday at Patheos:
In 1804, the Ursuline Sisters, who had fled the anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution to found schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the Louisiana Territory, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson of their concerns that the United States government, now in control of New Orleans, would interfere with their freedom to operate their institutions and set their own regulations. They were aware of Jefferson’s support of the French Revolution and of his writings concerning the “wall of separation” he saw in the First Amendment’s guarantees.
Jefferson’s letter in response–often omitted from collections of his works–is respectful, clear, and reassuring. Read the text and substitute Little Sisters of the Poor for the Ursulines, and it’s immediately apparent that Stiehm is conjuring the wrong guy.
I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana.
The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.
Whatever the diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under.
Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.
I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.
The letter, in Jefferson’s hand, is on display in the museum of the Ursulines in New Orleans, where I’ve seen it. It is recognized, rightly, as one of the founding documents in our American understanding of freedom of religion.
It’s difficult to see how Stiehm could have possibly been more ignorant on freedom, religion, tolerance, and the law than in her self-exposure at US News. Continue reading
A fine video by Professor John Eastman for Praeger University demonstrating how Church State relations today in the United States bears almost no relationship to that envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The vehicle of this misapprehension has been Thomas Jefferson’ s letter to a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. Here is the text of that letter:
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.
It would have astounded Jefferson if he could have foreseen that the Supreme Court would make his letter the cornerstone of erecting a wall of separation between Church and State. Jefferson did not intend to have the letter be a centerpiece of Constitutional theory, but rather it was a partisan attempt by his to refute Federalist arguments that he was an infidel. In a brilliant essay, which may be read here, James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, explains the historical background of the letter: Continue reading
And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia, which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.
Thomas Jefferson-Letter to Samuel Kercheval (July 12, 1816)
President Obama begs to differ with Mr. Jefferson:
Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted. Continue reading
Chief Justice John Roberts’ recent decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, as well as his vote to overturn much of Arizona’s illegal immigration law, has made conservatives think that yet again a Republican president was bamboozled. Personally I think it’s a bit early to completely write off the Chief Justice. For most of his tenure he’s been a fairly reliable conservative vote, and there is still much time (presumably) before he retires. Then we will be better able to assess his legacy.
It did get me thinking, though. What are the worst Supreme Court selections in history? I’m looking at this question in terms of the president doing the selecting. Someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a doctrinaire liberal, wouldn’t make the cut because no doubt she has voted in much the way Bill Clinton would have wished when he picked her. Similarly, I do not include someone like John Paul Stevens. Though over time he veered much further to the left than Gerald Ford or his Attorney General , Edward Levi (who basically made the selection) could have anticipated, Stevens’ jurisprudence was not that radically removed from Ford’s own preferences. In fact, Ford wrote of Stevens:
For I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination thrity years ago of Justice John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court. I endorse his constitutional views on the secular character of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, on securing procedural safeguards in criminal case and on the constitution’s broad grant of regulatory authority to Congress. I include as well my special admiration for his charming wit and sense of humor; as evidence in his dissent in the 1986 commerce clause case of Maine v. Taylorand United States, involving the constitutionality of a Maine statute that broadly restricted any interstate trade of Maine’s minnows. In words perhaps somewhat less memorable then, “Shouting fire in a crowded theater,” Justice Stevens wrote, “There is something fishy about this case.”
He has served his nation well, at all times carrying out his judicial duties with dignity, intellect and without partisan political concerns. Justice Stevens has made me, and our fellow citizens, proud of my three decade old decision to appoint him to the Supreme Court. I wish him long life, good health and many more years on the bench.
Well, if Ford was willing to base his legacy on his choice of John Paul Stevens, then I’m happy to call Gerald Ford a miserable failure.
This, then, is a list of the biggest mistakes in Supreme Court selection. Continue reading
In my previous post I may have given the impression that I was simply doing what I accused David Barton of doing, namely, cherrypicking quotes from Thomas Jefferson in order to paint him how I wished. So here are a few more selections from the Jefferson oeuvre that should put to rest any notions that Jefferson was in any way an orthodox Christian. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a link to David Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. It’s almost like my friend, knowing my academic interest in Thomas Jefferson, cast some bait in my direction. And two months later, I took it.
I can honestly say that I went into it with an open mind. Even if Barton misinterpreted Jefferson, maybe he would do so in at least a semi-convincing way. After all, it’s possible for individuals to have high opinions of Thomas Jefferson without being historical hacks. I have tremendous respect for David Mayer, for example, and his opinion of Jefferson is completely different than mine.
Sadly, my low expectations were met. To be sure, Barton does offer enough arguments to rebut the most absurd and historically inaccurate claims about Jefferson. For example, Barton correctly points out the fallacy of the claim that it has been definitively proven that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by the slave Sally Hemings. I also believe that Barton’s insinuations about the partisan motivations behind the claims have some merit. But this chapter exemplifies so much of what is wrong with Barton’s methodology. While there can be no conclusive argument made that Jefferson fathered children by Hemings, it is also impossible to assert with any certainty that he did not. But Barton cannot leave well enough, and Barton distorts the findings of the commission tasked with determining the paternity of Hemings’ children to make it appear that Jefferson almost certainly could not be the father. While it’s certainly true that genetic testing at this stage of history cannot offer conclusive proof one way or the other, the idea that the father of Hemings’ children can be any one of a dozen men or so is also not really credible. Personally I am rather agnostic on the question, and don’t think it is of huge historic import, but Barton stretches the truth almost as badly as those who adamantly insist that Jefferson was the father.
The real meat of the book focuses on the topic of religion. Again, Barton is incredibly frustrating to read. He asserts towards the beginning of the book that it is important to read primary sources, and to truly understand the historical context when judging historical figures. He is correct on both counts. He then incredibly proceeds to selectively cite dubious secondary sources in order to prove his assertions, and then ignores broader context when cherrypicking quotes from Jefferson.
A prime example of Barton cherrypicking Jefferson occurs in a chapter in which Barton tries to prove that Jefferson was no fan of the secular French Enlightenment. Barton offers as proof of this assertion a critical passage in one of Jefferson’s letters regarding the French philosopher Guillame Raynal. Evidently one critical passage about one obscure thinker is all the evidence we need that Jefferson was at odds with French Enlightenment philosophy. Well then.
Barton’s reliance on dubious sources bites him when discussing the supposed Jefferson Bible. Again, Barton is correct in the narrowest sense when he notes that Jefferson did not attempt to create a bible. Rather, two separate works by Jefferson – The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth – were compilations of Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. It wasn’t a “bible,” and Jefferson never attempted to pass these compilations off as such. But then Barton claims that neither work was as unorthodox as historians have claimed them to be. Jefferson did not cut out the supernatural elements from the Gospel, and indeed included some stories that referenced miracles and the afterlife. But as Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter demonstrate in Getting Jefferson Right, Barton’s source declaring that Jefferson included the miracle stories in his compilations is just plain wrong. As for the other examples of Jefferson including references to the supernatural, these were mainly concerned with the afterlife. Throckmorton and Coulter concede that Jefferson did believe in the afterlife, thus it isn’t all that surprising that Jefferson would include these references. After all, Jefferson was not an atheist. He certainly believed in God, though he did not believe that Jesus Himself was a member of the Godhead.
And that is really the fundamental problem with Barton’s work. Barton tries mightily to paint Jefferson as some kind of conventional Christian, suggesting that his heterodoxy developed late in life as he fell under the Unitarian influence. Barton has to ignore almost an entire lifetime of Jefferson’s work in order to reach this conclusion. Here is how Jefferson expressed his views on Jesus:
The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.
1.He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
2.His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3.The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
That’s pretty clearly not orthodox Christianity to me.
Jefferson would even call Jesus’s teachings defective, though he praised Jesus as an ethicist. His compilations from the Gospels were meant to restore Christ’s teachings to their original intent, as it were. Jefferson believed that Paul and the other Apostles had distorted Christ’s work, so that is why he took out all accounts of miracles and references to Jesus being in any way part of the Godhead. Most importantly, his compilation ends at the death of Christ on the cross and his placement in the tomb. Jefferson rejected the resurrection.
Jefferson repeatedly excoriated Paul as one of the principle impostors who distorted Christ’s teachings.
Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.
Jefferson added that Paul was a “Platonist who had brought beclouding mysticism to Jesus’ clear moral teachings.”
Barton also glosses over Jefferson’s disdain of the clergy. He cites some examples of Jefferson praising men of the cloth, but in almost every example Jefferson was praising a fellow heterodox Christian. It would be like trying to prove that someone is a faithful Catholic by highlighting their words of praise for Voice of the Faithful or Catholics for a Free Choice.
In several of his letters, Jefferson overtly criticized organized religion. “My opinion is that there never would have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest,” he wrote to Samuel Smith, meaning that religion creates artificial guidelines which restrict freedom of thought. He added that clergy only lay down these rules in order to augment their own power. “The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.”
Barton is correct to temper some of the more extreme claims about Jefferson and religion. Jefferson was no atheist, and it would not entirely be correct to say that he disdained Christianity as such. On the other hand, Barton glosses over much of Jefferson’s more negative assessments of Christianity. Most importantly, his attempt to portray Jefferson’s heterodox views as a late-life aberration is simply laughable.
Barton and those that follow him do neither conservatism nor Christianity any favors by distorting the historical record. Barton seems to be under the impression that each of the Founding Fathers must be protected from the slings and arrows of Progressive historians who would tear down these great men. I share Barton’s distrust and even contempt for most contemporary historians. But Barton’s pseudo-history is no way to counter this trend, and only provides ammunition to those who would mock conservative Christians. The progressive reading of Jefferson happens to be the correct one. Well, you know what they say about stopped clocks.
It’s Easter, so naturally it’s time for idiocy like Newsweek’s cover story written by Andrew Sullivan. It looks like Sullivan has added theologian to his list of other professions, which include pundit and gynecologist. It’s about what you’d expect from the combination of Newsweek and Sullivan. Christianity is dying and it’s because of all those stuffed-shirts who have distorted Jesus’s message.
Fr. Barron is on the case, and he completely dismantles Sullivan. A few highlights:
The solution Sullivan proposes is a repristinizing of Christianity, a return to its roots and essential teachings. And here he invokes, as a sort of patron saint, Thomas Jefferson, who as a young man literally took a straight razor to the pages of the New Testament and cut out any passages dealing with the miraculous, the supernatural, or the resurrection and divinity of Jesus.
The result of this Jeffersonian surgery is Jesus the enlightened sage, the teacher of timeless moral truths concerning love, forgiveness and non-violence. Both Jefferson and Sullivan urge that this Christ, freed from churchly distortions, can still speak in a liberating way to an intelligent and non-superstitious audience.
As the reference to Jefferson should make clear, there is nothing particularly new in Sullivan’s proposal. The liberation of Jesus the wisdom figure from the shackles of supernatural doctrine has been a preoccupation of much of the liberal theology of the last 200 years.
The Jefferson “Bible” is, if nothing else, an impressive work of art. Jefferson took passages from Scripture written in English, Latin, Greek, and French. He carefully pasted the passages side-by-side. It’s an awesome display of craftsmanship. Of course it completely distorts the life and mission of Christ and turns our Lord and Saviour into nothing more than a wise philosopher. It’s a good representation of Jefferson’s uber-rationalistic mindset, and part of an extended effort to de-fang the real Christ.
Fr. Barron has more.
The first problem with this type of theorizing is that it has little to do with the New Testament. As Jefferson’s Bible makes clear, the excision of references to the miraculous, to the resurrection, and to the divinity of Jesus delivers to us mere fragments of the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were massively interested in the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus and they were positively obsessed with his dying and rising. The Gospels have been accurately characterized as “passion narratives with long introductions.”
Further, the earliest Christian texts that we have are the epistles of St. Paul, and in those letters that St. Paul wrote to the communities he founded, there are but a tiny handful of references to the teaching of Jesus. What clearly preoccupied Paul was not the moral doctrine of Jesus, but the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Indeed, by removing the miracles and resurrection from the account of Jesus’s life you’ve almost completely stripped his mission of any meaning.
And this leads to the second major problem with a proposal like Sullivan’s. It offers absolutely no challenge to the powers that be. It is precisely the bland and harmless version of Christianity with which the regnant culture is comfortable.
Go back to Peter’s sermon for a moment. “You killed him,” said the chief of Jesus’s disciples. The “you” here includes the power structures of the time, both Jewish and Roman, which depended for their endurance in power on their ability to frighten their subjects through threats of lethal punishment.
“But God raised him.” The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the clearest affirmation possible that God is more powerful than the corrupt and violent authorities that govern the world — which is precisely why the tyrants have always been terrified of it. When the first Christians held up the cross, the greatest expression of state-sponsored terrorism, they were purposely taunting the leaders of their time: “You think that frightens us?”
The opening line of the Gospel of Mark is a direct challenge to Rome: “beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). “Good news” (euangelion in Mark’s Greek) was a term used to describe an imperial victory. The first Christian evangelist is saying, not so subtly, that the real good news hasn’t a thing to do with Caesar.
Rather, it has to do with someone whom Caesar killed and whom God raised from the dead. And just to rub it in, he refers to this resurrected Lord as the “Son of God.” Ever since the time of Augustus, “Son of God” was a title claimed by the Roman emperor. Not so, says Mark. The authentic Son of God is the one who is more powerful than Caesar.
Again and again, Sullivan says that he wants a Jesus who is “apolitical.” Quite right — and that’s just why the cultural and political leaders of the contemporary West will be perfectly at home with his proposal. A defanged, privatized, spiritual teacher poses little threat to the status quo.
This is a great passage, and one of the reasons that Fr. Barron is truly a treasure. I love how he completely turns around Sullivan’s argument and makes him the champion of the status quo. It’s a really great insight, and one that completely sticks it to Dr. Sullivan. Well played.
(Thanks RL for the tip.)
One of the more interesting aspects of the conflict between Jefferson and Adams is how little difference it made in the long run in American history, except, perhaps, for an early establishment of the two party tradition. For all Jefferson’s partiality to France, when he was in office he steered a strictly neutral course. The economic development of the country was little changed by the switch in parties in power. The battles over internal developments that marked the conflicts between Democrats and Whigs, were matters for a later time when expansion and technological progress brought them to the fore. The Alien and Sedition Acts which loom large in the below video:
involved less of principle and more of politics. Jefferson, for example, was in favor of prosecutions of federalists under state sedition laws in states which his followers controlled. Continue reading
A very well done fan made “trailer” for a Thomas Jefferson miniseries, with the trailer consisting of clips from the John Adams miniseries. Such a miniseries would be challenging. Jefferson was one of the most complicated of the Founding Fathers, and there is plenty of his legacy to fight about still. I love the Declaration of Independence, yet I think clearly Alexander Hamilton had the better plan for the economic development of the country. I agree with Jefferson on his concern about too much federal authority over states, but he loses me with his embrace, prior to his presidency, of nullification. Jefferson spoke and wrote against slavery his entire life, yet he made no plans, as did Washington, to free his slaves after his death. A man who railed against government debt, he was so profligate in his personal finances that all of his property, including his slaves, had to be sold after his death to pay his debts. A man who deeply cherished the teachings of Christ, yet denied His divinity. A man averse to standing armies and war, yet he supported the French Revolution at its bloodiest, and could talk glibly about the blood of patriots watering the tree of liberty, while he never served a day in the Continental Army. Continue reading
There’s been some buzz lately about states kicking the idea of nullification around. State legislators in Nebraska have been circulating a little tome by Thomas Woods on the subject, and there’s been some news reports of states considering the idea with regards to health care. Before conservatives go trumpeting this idea as some way of saving the republic, let’s keep in mind something: it’s a bad idea that happens to be unconstitutional.
Whenever the idea of nullification comes up we inevitably hear about Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution and James Madison’s Virginia Resolution. They were penned in response to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The key passages from Jefferson’s resolution is as follows: Continue reading