Prothero on Jefferson

Stephen Prothero has a short column in today’s USA Today on Thomas Jefferson, David Barton, and American political and civil discourse.

He begins with David Barton and his attempt to turn Thomas Jefferson into an orthodox Christian and concludes with Jefferson’s efforts, in his first inaugural address, to move the country beyond the partisan divisions of the 1790s.  While many turn to Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a statement of reconciliation and national healing, Prothero reminds us that Jefferson had a similar vision when he became president in 1801.

Prothero argues that the way around the culture wars and “partisan creep” is what he calls “The American Bible.”  I will let him explain:

Americans have never agreed on a common creed of our public life, but we do share two things: a collection of core texts and the ritual of arguing about them. Just as Catholics come together to participate in the Mass, Americans come together to debate what these speeches, songs and stories tell us about “America” and “Americans.”

Two quick thoughts:

1.  I have not finished Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, but I do not think Barton ever tries, as Prothero describes it, to paint Jefferson as an “orthodox Christian.”  While Barton wants to show that Jefferson deeply valued Christianity and the contribution it could make to a republic, I think he is willing to admit that Jefferson was not orthodox or evangelical.  (Although I am sure that this is not a part of his public presentations to churches).

2.  Prothero says that he does not aim to criticize Barton, only to make sense of his many fans.  I wish his column would have developed his thoughts on this point a bit more.  There have been a lot of criticism on the content and methodology of Barton’s work, but very little written about why his approach to the American past is so attractive to so many people.  Perhaps I need to read Prothero’s The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide, and Define a Nation to learn more.

2 thoughts on “Prothero on Jefferson

  1. For Barton on Jefferson as “orthodox,” see his chapter refuting (correctly) the claim that TJ was an atheist. Examples: “In fact, throughout the time of the Great Revival and for over a decade after it, Jefferson's writings and statements on religious faith can be considered as nothing less than orthodox” (168). “By the time he became president, he had returned to a stronger and more orthodox position” (169). See also p. 187, which refers to Jefferson's “completely orthodox Christian beliefs.” Also p. 190.


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