Co-conspirators with kings and nobles

Posted in: Jefferson Today, Thomas Jefferson

What an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in Politics & Religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power & priestcraft. --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, March 21, 1801

Jefferson frequently identified priests as co-conspirators with kings and nobles in the suppression of human freedom.  In general, he believed that priests, especially Roman Catholic or Calvinist ones, corrupted republican government by forcing their congregants to adopt abstruse metaphysical propositions instead of thinking for themselves.  Jefferson thought that Massachusetts and Connecticut (where the Congregational Church was still established throughout his presidency) provided excellent evidence for this position.  To him, Congregationalist ministers and Federalist politicians in these states mutually reinforced one another's arbitrary authority.  By way of contrast, he adored Baptist ministers, who insisted on the separation of church and state and emphasized the primacy of the individual conscience. 

Who would Jefferson identify as the "priests" of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries?   

While his views on today's divisive social issues might disappoint twenty-first century liberals, Jefferson would have surely grieved at the ascendance of the religious right in the 1970s and 1980s.  He would be absolutely stunned at the scale of the Southern Baptist apostasy and would rank James Dobson and Ralph Reed along with the "barbarians" of 1800.  Jefferson would not be able to understand, for instance, how fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention have reconciled the enforcement of a Baptist orthodoxy and support of the Republican Party with their more libertarian religious heritage.  Moreover, Jefferson would interpret Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition as diabolical handmaidens of the Republican Party.  In Dobson's and Reed's exhortations over the last three decades that listeners (or readers) vote according to what evangelical leaders define as the "orthodox" Christian position on social issues, Jefferson would see priestcraft of the highest order.  Notwithstanding his own views on these social issues, he would resist the use of religious belief to compel votes with every resource available to him.

Charles F. Irons is Assistant Professor of History at Elon University.

Tags

Login or register to tag items

Comments

says

At the risk of being charged with being fact oriented I suggest that Professor Iron’s position is, accurately informed by the following quotes, among others.

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. “

-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.��

-Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.��

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.\\"

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 30 July, 1816

“Priests...dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live.��

-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820

says

Jefferson new that the Priest was suppose to teach the inscription on the "Liberty Bell" back up by the teachings of the "New Testament" to espouse "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners" and back up the "Old Testament" to "proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners" to defend those imprisoned, impoverished or oppressed to be released from anything which binds, like the King and his State, as he was devoted to the Bible on a daily basis.

says

This is a huge subject and volumes are written on the matter. Paine, Thomas 1776-1791 has articulated the matter with some detail. His pamphlets, free of charge, really helped to organize the colonist as one!

says

Jefferson knew that the Priest was suppose to teach the inscription on the “Liberty Bell” backed up by the teachings of the “New Testament” to espouse “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and backed up by the “Old Testament” to “proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” to defend those imprisoned, impoverished or oppressed to be released from anything which binds, like the King and his State, as he was devoted to the Bible on a daily basis.

says

Adapting the words of Shakespeare:
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Thomas Jefferson's philosophy or his knowledge of history.

says

In his dismissal of distinctively Christian doctrines as “abstruse metaphysical propositions,” and by uncharitably characterizing persons with whom he disagrees as “diabolical,” Professor Irons reveals his own prejudices that writer C.S. Lewis might have regarded to be the product of “chronological snobbery.” Contemporary cultural discourse has been so shaped by the assumptions of the “Age of Enlightenment” that it is easy to forget that Jefferson and his philosophical compatriots, despite those aspects of their legacy that is positive, did not have a perspective that encompassed all truth.

It is interesting that Professor Irons lumps Roman Catholics and Calvinists together as one menacing bugaboo of Christianity (even misapplying the term “priests” to Calvinist clergy), but in so doing, he is essentially echoing Jefferson’s view, for such is the way that cultural divisions shift over time. A century or two prior to Jefferson’s birth, Calvinists were vandalizing Catholic churches and destroying Catholic art in their efforts to “cleanse” Christianity from “idolatry” and “superstition” and base Christianity upon “Scripture Alone.” But once Calvinists and other Protestant Christians dismissed the need for the Catholic Church to teach and interpret the Scripture that it had compiled, Jefferson and his philosophical kin would go a step further and dispense with the canon of Scripture altogether because, in their minds, had not men like the Gospel writers and St. Paul “corrupted” the “simple” teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? They most likely viewed themselves as simply completing the dismantling of “priestcraft” that their Protestant forebears had begun.
Despite this intellectual trajectory, men like Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson were not prepared to dispense with belief in a benevolent God altogether. According to them, it was eminently reasonable to propose the existence of such a God from scientifically observing nature, but to say anything more of God based on supposed supernatural revelation would be to venture into the realm of unreasonable superstition. However, one need not subscribe to their truncated understanding of reason to see that, though belief in traditional Christian doctrines does require the element of faith, such faith is not mere superstition. Rather, it is reasonable when one properly examines humankind’s perpetual search for meaning together with the historical evidence (though not empirical proof) of Christian claims regarding supernatural revelation.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson could write of “self-evident” rights because his views of God derived from a cultural consensus that had been shaped by centuries of Judeo-Christian metaphysics regarding the divine source of human dignity. A more probing 18th Century skeptic like David Hume could have pointed out to men like Voltaire, Paine, and Jefferson that science alone could not prove their belief in a benevolent Creator, as even that brand of minimal monotheism required the same element of faith as Christianity. From his writing, it seems evident that Jefferson assumed (or at least hoped) that American society could dispense with the bulk of Judeo-Christian metaphysics but yet could still exhibit the social cohesion and virtues produced by that religious tradition, whether in family life or civic life. Professor Irons notes this assumption when he states that Jefferson’s “views on today’s divisive social issues might disappoint twenty-first century liberals.” Two hundred years after Jefferson, though, it is certainly a live question as to whether or not his assumption on this matter is in fact viable.

Jefferson’s prediction that Americans (or at least American men) would dispense with historic Christian doctrines within a generation after his death proved untrue, for people have continually sought meaning that neither science nor the limited God of the Enlightenment can provide. Jefferson could relegate differences within the Judeo-Christian tradition to the private realm (sort of like a hobby that some people enjoy) because American society from his day until the 1960’s was undergirded by the common denominator of that tradition’s belief system regarding human dignity and virtuous behavior, even if those beliefs were imperfectly lived out owing to the weaknesses and moral failings of human nature. However, since that cultural consensus began to unravel in the 1960’s, we are witnessing a realignment of cultural divisions. This realignment calls into question the Enlightenment’s legacy regarding the supposed insignificance of Judeo-Christian metaphysics to our civilization, as religiously skeptical secularists are prepared to go farther on the trail blazed by Voltaire, Paine, and Jefferson.

Religious beliefs always have a social dimension and can never be divorced from public debate or policymaking because such beliefs, or the lack thereof, shape how a person understands reality and the meaning of human life. Contemporary divisions on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, biological technology, the definition and importance of marriage, and what government owes us are outgrowths of these more foundational beliefs. Rather than engage in facile caricatures and dismissals that do no credit to a Professor of History, Professor Irons should exercise his freethinking capabilities in examining his own beliefs regarding what shared framework of meaning is necessary for the maintenance of a cohesive society that safeguards human dignity, responsible liberty, and virtuous behavior. Hopefully, he might then at least refrain from demonizing traditional Christians who are not attempting to legislatively penalize non-belief in Christianity, but who are rather attempting to recover the most important cultural legacies of the Judeo-Christian consensus that built Western civilization. Regarding the extent to which he enjoys benefits of those legacies, he might find it interesting to consider that universities were created by a culture formed by Roman Catholic Christianity.

says

Jefferson knew that the Priest was suppose to teach the inscription on the “Liberty Bell” back up by the teachings of the “New Testament” to espouse “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and back up the “Old Testament” to “proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” to defend those imprisoned, impoverished or oppressed to be released from anything which binds, like the King and his State, as he was devoted to the Bible on a daily basis.

says

ooops ... \"educateD\" the young TJ\" ;)

says

Just a very small clarification. The Roman Catholic Church's position on scripture is that is "explains Scripture" but does not interpret it". Protestants interpret it.

Also, when speaking about the Declaration of Independence, it's hard not to consider Filippo Mazzei's massive contribution. He basically educate the young Thomas Jefferson with regards to such matters. In some ways he was very much his mentor.

says

I should modify one of the closing statements of my post above, in which I failed to acknowledge the contributions of pre-Christian Greek and Roman culture to Western civilization. Nonetheless, Chrisitianity was able to fuse the moral and religious force of ancient Jewish culture with the highest philosophical, artistic, and civic contributions of the Greeks and Romans, as Christians understood their faith as building upon or fulfilling the aspirations of those three cultures. This cultural significance can been seen in the growth of Christianity from a persecuted Jewish sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire and the Church's role in preserving its cultural heritage following its political collapse.

Add comment

Login or register to post comments