Saturday, March 17, 2018

Jefferson's Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps America’s best known spiritual but not religious (SBNR) deist.  He prepared The Jefferson Bible as his personal collection of the moral teachings of Jesus, leaving out many of the mystical matters in the gospel accounts.  Jefferson understood that political legitimacy depended upon moral standards, not mystical beliefs, and that the moral standards of political legitimacy in America were derived from the Christian religion.

Jefferson held the teachings of Jesus in high regard but he detested church doctrines.  In 1804 he wrote: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in utmost profound detestation and execration, the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man.”

Many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips; and Robin Meyers has echoed Jefferson’s criticism of the church in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus,  Even so, the church has continued to promote exclusivist church beliefs that emphasize worshiping Jesus as God rather than following him as God’s word.

The emphasis on exclusivist Christian beliefs has led to the rise of the evangelical prosperity gospel.  Promoted by evangelicals like Robert Jeffress and Paula White, it more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist beliefs of Ayn Rand than the altruistic gospel of Jesus.  The prosperity gospel and distorted “family values” that consider abortion a murder motivated enough white “Christian” voters to elect Donald Trump in 2016.

The prosperity gospel is a modern mutation of ancient Jewish beliefs that God rewards the faithful with wealth and health and punishes the unfaithful with poverty and suffering.  Evangelicals even equate Trump with Cyrus, the pagan liberator of Jews exiled in Babylon. They consider Trump chosen by God to liberate them from the evils of the political left.  Despite Trump’s narcissism, nativism, bullying, philandering and deceit, he can do no wrong.

The church in America is declining, but over 70% of Americans still claim to be Christians.  Their segregated churches foster racially polarized partisan politics; most white Christians vote Republican while most blacks vote Democratic.  Evangelical churches openly support Republicans while white mainline denominations don’t mix religion and politics. It will take another Christian reformation to give the teachings of Jesus moral priority in the church.

A new reformation would have to originate outside the church with SBNRs who are willing to speak truth to power--that is, the truth spoken by Jesus to powers in both the church and politics.  That truth is summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves--including our neighbors of other races and religions.  It is a truth accepted as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

It would be ironic if a new reformation resurrected Jefferson’s Jesus, since Jefferson was a slaveholder and deist who detested the institutional church--and the feeling was mutual.  But after more than 200 years the universal moral teachings of Jesus should take priority over exclusivist Christian doctrines. That means putting the service of love in A Modern Affirmation over the traditional Christian beliefs in The Apostles’ Creed that ignore that moral imperative.

Christians have the responsibility to be good stewards of their democracy, and that requires them to apply the moral standards taught by Jesus to their politics.  For the church to regain its legitimacy in America it must be reformed to make the moral imperatives taught by Jesus a priority of faith, and apply them to politics without endorsing any candidate or party.     


Jefferson’s Jesus provides teachings from the Gospels on morality that are compared with those of Muhammad in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy.  It is posted in the Resources at
The Introduction (pp 10-15) provides an overview of the study guide, and reference to Jefferson’s 1804 letter to Henry Fry is at end note 2 (p 425).

Jefferson could be described as a deist, spiritual but not religious, agnostic or heterodox Christian.  The terms have overlapping meanings that distinguish them from orthodox believers.  In a world of increasingly pluralistic religions non-orthodox truth seekers will likely determine the future of religion and the moral standards of legitimacy derived from them that shape politics and the American civil religion.  See Christians as Truth Seekers and Agnostics at

On the racist roots of Christian evangelicals and why they are so cruel, see

On Derek Newton’s assertion that Trump’s core supporters won’t reject him since it would mean rejecting their own values, see

On how evangelical Christians use Bible stories to rationalize their support for Donald Trump and why they are calling him a “modern day Cyrus”, see:
For believers who subscribe to this account, Cyrus is a perfect historical antecedent to explain Trump’s presidency: a nonbeliever who nevertheless served as a vessel for divine interest.
For these leaders, the biblical account of Cyrus allows them to develop a ‘vessel theology’ around Donald Trump, one that allows them to reconcile his personal history of womanizing and alleged sexual assault with what they see as his divinely ordained purpose to restore a Christian America.
According to John Fea, this narrative works because it allows evangelicals to capitalize on Trump’s “strongman” persona — in practical terms, his ability to get votes — while allowing them to justify their support theologically and preserve their sense of Trump as a God-backed candidate.
Andrew Whitehead says the idea that God plays a divine role in politics is nothing new. When it comes to the presidency, narratives of divine intervention have been woven into American cultural discourse from the beginning of what Whitehead calls America's “civil religion,” which he describes as a fusion of political and religious imagery.
Fea concurs. Throughout the early history of America, he notes, American exceptionalism and a particular blend of Christian nationalism — seeing America as a kind of new chosen land for God’s intervention on a parallel with the Israel of the Old Testament — went hand in hand. He references the ideal of the ‘city on a hill,’ an image from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, used by Puritan settler John Winthrop to describe how the new American colonies would serve as a model for Christian living.
This sense that God has ‘chosen’ America as a special people, or that he acts directly in American affairs, has, Fea argues, given us quintessentially American historical phenomena such as Manifest Destiny, the imperialist expansion of the United States across North America.
Therefore, at the very least, the idea that God intervenes directly in American political affairs, and uses American political figures as vessels to effect divine will, is deeply rooted in centuries of Christian nationalism.”  See

Reference is made to Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.

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