By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Thomas Jefferson considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” In 1820 at the age of 77, Jefferson completed The Jefferson Bible: The LIfe and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth “to extract the teachings of Jesus from the crustaceans of the church;” but The Jefferson Bible was not published until the next century.
The church has never acknowledged Jefferson’s Jesus, probably because Jefferson never acknowledged the divinity of Jesus. But Jefferson was praised by a distinguished group of Biblical scholars known as The Jesus Seminar who have focused on separating the authentic word of Jesus from church doctrine on Jesus Christ that was never taught by Jesus.
There has been more interest in rediscovering the real Jesus since a majority of white Christians elected Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s narcissistic immorality is the antithesis of the universal and altruistic morality taught by Jesus. David French has said that “There is something particularly painful and puzzling when expressions of hatred come from people who claim to follow Jesus.” The white church lost its moral compass in 2016.
The biggest problem with the American church and democracy is not Donald Trump or the wanna-be demagogues seeking power. The real problem is with white Christians who support those demagogues, and their pastors who are unwilling to chastise them for failing to be moral stewards of American democracy. The result is a lack of political legitimacy in America.
America is whatever its voters choose it to be in our elections. We can’t blame political corruption on others in our democracy. We’re masters of our own political destiny, for better or for worse; and when we ignore the altruistic teachings of Jesus we’re no better than those in other nations, even if we claim to be Christians.
The church, like democracy, is only as moral as its members, and most white Christians sacrificed Jesus on the altar of partisan politics when they abandoned his altruistic teachings and supported Trump in 2016. Since then polls indicate that even with four criminal indictments Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party remain loyal to him.
White American Christians and their pastors have corrupted the church and democracy by ignoring the moral teachings of Jesus in politics and promoting exclusivist church doctrines never taught by Jesus that claim that Christianity is the only means of salvation. Can Americans reclaim the moral high ground of the universal and altruistic teachings of Jesus?
Those teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it’s the only way to reconcile America’s polarized partisan politics. It may seem impossible, but remember that with God anything is possible.
See The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989. It provides the universal teachings of Jesus on morality as taken from the Gospels. While Thomas Jefferson had great admiration for the moral teachings of Jesus he had no use for the doctrines of the institutional church. He wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "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 the 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." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379. See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-aTJubVlISnpQc1U/view. They are compared with those of Muhammad in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, 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.
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.”
David French has opined that virtue (another word for morality) in political Christianity “bears little resemblance to the faith as described in the Bible. It seems as if there’s an almost mathematical equation at work — when you combine theology and ideology but subtract virtue, you’ve created a formula for viciousness and strife. Raise the stakes to an existential or eternal level, remove the restraints of kindness and self-control, and watch the worst of humanity emerge. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christian faith is the way Scripture treats both theology and virtue. The Bible is of course a complex theological book. But when it comes to identifying whether a person is in the grip of the “flesh” (i.e., worldly sinfulness) or exhibiting the influence of the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t emphasize theology but rather something much more simple: virtue and vice. In other words, even the most impeccable theological understandings are meaningless if they don’t result in Christian character.
Jesus said, “every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.” The conclusion is simple — beware the hateful, the people drawn to strife; embrace those who are kind and peaceful. Of course none of us are perfect, but those who follow Jesus should be marked by those virtues. Do those virtues mark the most prominent political Christians today? Do those virtues characterize political Christianity in the age of Trump? The answers are self-evident. At a time of extraordinary partisan polarization, a Christian message should demand that we love our enemies. (And what is love? Among other things, as we learn in Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs.”) Moments of political conflict such as this one should cause the church to blaze forth with countercultural radiance — a soothing balm in a sea of strife. But the dominant tone of contemporary American political Christianity is close to the opposite. It’s angry. It’s punitive. In many ways it positively delights in strife. The Christianity it embodies isn’t so much Christianity at all, but rather a religiously flavored authoritarianism that is proving to be red in tooth and claw, a political and cultural movement that embraces the “works of the flesh,” supposedly to accomplish the will of God. Political Christianity …sees threats to American faith primarily outside the church, creating a sense of siege. It casts kindness as weakness, creating incentives for aggression. And since it casts conflicts in the most existential of terms — its political opponents are not misguided fellow citizens, but literally demonic — it raises the temperature to the boiling point. As the popular Christian author Eric Metaxas told Donald Trump in November 2020, in the midst of the president’s efforts to overturn the election: “ God is with us.”
I spoke not long ago at a small gathering Christian pastors. When I asked for questions, I was struck by the fact that the first few were all about legal and cultural issues surrounding transgender Americans. I was happy to do my best to answer them, but I was struck by the immediate turn to that issue, beyond any other. It was impossible to miss the fact that so many minds were preoccupied with challenges to traditional Christian teaching from outside the church that seemed more distant and theoretical; and so few were focused on responding to immediate, near-universal challenges within its walls.
If theology minus virtue can equal violence, then perhaps theology plus virtue can enable justice. Look again at the fruit of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are incompatible with oppression. And while exhibiting that fruit does not guarantee that others will love or respect you, it does help us obey one of our highest calls: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. See Political Christianity Has Claws at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/24/opinion/political-christianity-has-claws.html.
See also, America Is Losing Religious Faith, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/23/opinion/christianity-america-religion-secular.html.
Also, Musings of a Maverick Methodist on The Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/04/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.
Pope Francis has said some “backward” conservatives in the US Catholic Church have replaced faith with [political] ideology. See https://apnews.com/article/pope-francis-vatican-conservatives.By Rudy Barnes, Jr., September 2, 2023