By Rudy Barnes, Jr., August 19, 2023
Thomas Jefferson considered the universal teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” In 1820 Jefferson fashioned a Gospel account that the Biblical scholars of The Jesus Seminar acclaimed as prescient, based on their objective ”to separate the real teachings of Jesus, the figure of history, from the encrustations of Christian doctrine.”
Jefferson’s seminal work was first published in 1904. It’s now known as The Jefferson Bible, and even though it has been praised by prominent biblical scholars in The Jesus Seminar, the church has rejected The Jefferson Bible since it rejects exclusivist church beliefs on salvation that have long been a priority of Christian doctrine, although never taught by Jesus.
Martin Theilen and Robin Meyers are retired pastors who have abandoned exclusivist church doctrines to embrace the universal and altruistic teachings of Jesus as the Word of God. Theilen and Meyers share an emphasis on following the teachings of Jesus rather than worshiping Christ as the alter ego of God and the only means of salvation.
Jefferson’s Jesus is especially relevant today. Church membership is diminishing with most white Christians supporting a Republican Party led by a narcissist who is the antithesis of a universal and altruistic Jesus. The church has failed to challenge the morality of Trump’s supporters who have redefined Christian morality by making Trump, not Jesus, their exemplar.
The measure of success for the church is its popularity, and ironically the teachings of Jesus were never popular. Even so, in the 1960s some progressive white Christians risked their popularity to follow Jesus and promote civil rights; but since then most white Christians have been loyal to the Republican Party and avoided controversial political issues in their church.
The church lost its moral compass in 2016 when a majority of white Christians elected Donald Trump. To restore its lost legitimacy the white church must promote the common good by making the greatest commandment a moral imperative of its faith, demonstrating love for God and their neighbors as they love themselves, including those of other races and religions.
Jesus was a universalist Jew who taught that salvation was based on serving the least of those among us (Matthew 25:11-46), not on exclusivist religious beliefs; and Jesus never asserted his divinity or favored one religion over others. The church needs to reassess its moral priorities and make the greatest commandment a universal common word of faith.
There are many critical political issues in America today, and gun violence should be at the top of the list; but gun regulation is opposed by most white Christians in America, and some consider the right to bear arms as a sacred right. America needs to rediscover a universal and altruistic Jesus, and promote the reconciliation of its divisive partisan politics.
A distinguished group of biblical scholars has recognized Thomas Jefferson as a pioneer in The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus in The Five Gospels, New Translation and Commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, at pages 2 and 3. A Polebridge Press Book, McMillan Publishing Company, NY, 1993. “The book is dedicated to Galileo Galilei, who altered our view of the heavens forever, Thomas Jefferson, who took scissors and paste to the gospels, and David Freiedrich Strauss, who pioneered the quest for the historical Jesus.”
Jefferson’s Jesus provides the universal teachings of Jesus on morality taken from the Gospels. They are compared with those of Muhammad in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy. It’s an interfaith study guide based on Jefferson’s Jesus and is posted in the Resources at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/. 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 at p 425. Like many of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was a deist, a spiritual but not religious, agnostic or heterodox Christian. The terms have overlapping meanings that distinguish them from orthodox Christians. In a world of increasingly pluralistic religions, non-orthodox truth seekers will likely determine the future of religion and the moral standards of political legitimacy that shape the American civil religion. On Thomas Jefferson and Alexis deTocqueville and their views on the moral values of religion in American politics, see Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (July 1, 2017) at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/07/religion-moral-authority-and.html.
Martin Thielen has described his Long Farewell to Traditional Religion (and What Remains) at
Robin Meyers has answered the question, What is the Meaning of Salvation in Progressive Christianity? at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgzGlkXtmDFmxTNbQNMVdGcbnfttB.
His views on how exclusivist church doctrines have distorted the teachings of Jesus and undermined the legitimacy of the church are summarized in the title to his book, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.
Russell Moore, formally of the Southern Baptist Convention, thinks evangelicals have come dangerously adrift of morality. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/aug/13/losing-our-religion-review-trump-crisis-christianity; see also https://www.npr.org/2023/08/05/1192374014/russell-moore-on-altar-call-for-evangelical-america.
On The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/08/the-universalist-teachings-of-jesus-as.html.
On the greatest commandment as a common word of faith, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/01/the-greatest-commandment-common-word-of.html.