So I’m calling foul on David Barton.
He has a new book out on Thomas Jefferson entitled The Jefferson Lies. (Which I have ordered from my library to look through and possibly review. However, I am not linking it because this is not an endorsement.)
According to the book description, this work is supposed to “correct the distorted image of a once-beloved founding father, Thomas Jefferson.”
Through Jefferson's own words and the eyewitness testimony of contemporaries, Barton repaints a portrait of the man from Monticello as a visionary, an innovator, a man who revered Jesus, a classical Renaissance man―and a man whose pioneering stand for liberty and God-given inalienable rights fostered a better world for this nation and its posterity. For America, the time to remember these truths again is now.
“A man who revered Jesus.” How does that square with Jefferson’s famous bible? Barton explains on his website: “What Jefferson did was to take the ‘red letter’ portions of the New Testament and publish these teachings in order to introduce the Indians to Christian morality.”
Christian morality maybe, but certainly not Christianity. Even if the part about evangelizing the Indians is true (and it’s historically dubious), Jefferson’s bible is certainly not merely a simplified edition. In a letter to Adams, Jefferson described it as a fixing of the historical record:
We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dung-hill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages.
You can read the result for yourself. As it shows, the "amphiboligisms" "misconceptions" “dicta” and "dung-hill" cut out by Jefferson include all the miracles as well as the resurrection, reducing the gospels to a mere "code of morals." If Barton thinks that’s orthodox Christianity, he fails not only as a historian, but also as a theologian (ironically, his background is theology, not history, and we already knew he had difficulty distinguishing between Christianity and Mormonism.)
A review in the Wall Street Journal nails this point exactly:
Jefferson was "pro-Christian and pro-Jesus," [Barton] says, although he concedes that the president did have a few qualms about "specific Christian doctrines." The doctrines Jefferson rejected—the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity—are what place him in the camp of the deists and Unitarians in the first place. It was Jefferson's difficulty with these doctrines that persuaded his close friends Benjamin Rush and Joseph Priestley that Jefferson's skepticism went beyond anything even these latitudinarian believers could endorse.
I don’t dispute that Jefferson was a very influential founder, or that he made immense contributions to the nation (although he was also a mass of contradictions). But to claim him as a devout evangelical Christian is to make Christianity subservient to political ideology. It is no different than the often complained about practice of liberals claiming Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, or Abraham Lincoln was homosexual. With claims such as these Barton has crossed a line that no Christian or historian should cross. He has redefined orthodox Christianity to exclude the divinity of Christ, and he has rewritten history to serve his political ends. Barton has done to Jefferson what Jefferson did to Christ - rewrote history to exclude the inconvenient parts and then justified it by claiming to “fix” the record.
The word for that is propaganda.
Update: here are my additional thoughts after exploring the book itself.