Saturday, May 11, 2019

Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson's Jesus in the 21st Century

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr., May 11. 2019

Thomas Jefferson was 77 years old in 1819 when he completed The Jefferson Bible.  It presented Jesus as a maverick Jewish rabbi with no claim of divinity.  Jefferson considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and biblical scholars now consider Jefferson’s Jesus an early step toward discovering the historical Jesus.

Jefferson was a deist who authored the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the U.S.  While he considered the teachings of Jesus a supreme moral code that should be applied to politics, Jefferson considered “corruptions of those teachings by the church and state a conspiracy against the civil and religious liberties of man.”   

Jefferson’s Jesus taught God’s truth in the prophetic tradition.  Jesus never suggested that he was divine, or that God favored his religion over others.  Jesus taught love over law and was critical of sanctimonious and hypocritical religious leaders who taught that Mosaic Law was God’s holy standard of righteousness, and who put their own interests over the needs of others.

The greatest commandment summarizes the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus to love God and our neighbors, including our neighbors of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  It’s a common word of faith taken from the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus; and it has been recognized by Islamic scholars as a common word of their faith as well.   

That common word of altruistic love can reconcile the Abrahamic religions and promote a politics of reconciliation, but not for religions that claim to be the one true faith and condemn all unbelievers, or for one that claims a God-given promised land and a right to exclude others from it.  Such religious exclusivity exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it must end.

Jesus never mentioned democracy and human rights--but then he never condemned slavery either.  Jesus addressed issues of his time and place, leaving it for future generations to apply the universal and timeless concepts of God’s love for their time and place.  In a modern democracy that requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.

Democracy has proven dangerously divisive.  A toxic mix of religion and politics now seems to validate the prophecy of Edmund Burke that in a democracy we will forge our own shackles.  In America an obsession with individual rights and identity group demands have produced polarized partisan politics that now threaten to unravel the fabric of democracy.
Christians, Jews and Muslims have made a mess of God’s will in politics, undermining democracies around the world by supporting authoritarian demagogues.  In America, white Christians support Trump. In Israel, ultra-orthodox Jews support Netanyahu. And Islamists support al-Sissi in Egypt and Erdogan in Turkey.  It’s an unholy mix of religion, hate and politics.

The universal and altruistic teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus are not only relevant but essential in the 21st century.  In a world of increasing religious diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims must reject exclusivist religious doctrines and promote a politics of reconciliation based on the moral imperatives of the greatest commandment as a common word of faith and politics.


The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy is an interfaith study guide posted in the Resources for this website.  It compares the teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus to those of Muhammad to promote the reconciliation of the Abrahamic religions with a common word of faith.
The Introduction at pp 10-15 explains why Jefferson’s Jesus was used in the study guide; and End Note 2 at page 425 describes Jefferson’s admiration for the teachings of Jesus and his contempt for the church.  

For the Islamic perspective of a common word of faith, see

A recent study indicates that anti-Muslim hate is driven by politics, not faith--and it’s preventable.  It affirms the need for a politics of reconciliation through better interfaith understanding and relationships.

On how the Trump regime’s support of corrupt partisan electoral practices in the U.S. and support of anti-democratic practices of demagogues around the world undermine America’s democracy, see
Related commentary:

On the greatest commandment and love over law:
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(2/23/19): Musings on Loving Your Enemy, Including the Enemy Within

Other related commentary:

(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(7/2/16): The Need for a Politics of Reconciliation in the Wake of Globalization
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter?   
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(1/6/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(2/3/18): Musings on the Search for Truth through Interfaith Dialogue
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics
(10/13/18): Musings on a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Christians and Muslims
(11/17/18): Christianity and Clashing Identities in Politics and Religion
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(4/12/19): Musings on Religion, Nationalism and Libertarian Democracy
(5/4/19): Musings on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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