Learning from Jefferson

Posted on July 23, 2013


ImageRecently a friend sent me a link which he thought might interest me and he was right, it did. It was a link to an article entitled “The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson.” The link is supplied at the end of this article.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers and the third President of the United States. He was also the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. To many historians, he was one of the greatest American presidents.

But he had a then little known pastime which if he were to live today and to run for the U.S. presidency, he would probably not get elected. You see, he liked to cut up the Bible. With a razor or knife, he would cut out passages which he believed in, the life and words of Jesus and some of what he did but left out all the miracles and passages which suggested that Jesus was more than a mere man. Gone would be the virgin birth and the resurrection. Jefferson called his version of the Bible “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.  An earlier effort was called “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth”.

He told his friend, John Adams, in a letter, that the worthy parts of the Bible were easily distinguishable from the worthless—“as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”

Most of us, especially if one subscribes to a religious faith, would find what Jefferson did abominable, to mutilate Holy Scripture, especially one that the mutilator himself subscribed to. But before we cast Jefferson into the loony bin of history, let us pause to consider why he did it, how it shaped him as a person and through him – the values and character of the new nation he was building. Is there anything we can learn from him today?

Like all mankind, Jefferson should have the right to believe what he wanted to believe or not to believe. This is an inalienable right accorded to mankind by God himself as demonstrated by the first Biblical interaction between God and man in the Garden of Eden. God gave Adam a choice, to eat from the forbidden fruit or not and told him the consequence of his choice. Adam exercised his freedom to choose and faced the consequences of his decision.

Freedom of choice is not just a value of a political system, or a universal human aspiration but also the very bedrock of our relationship with our Creator God. It is a relationship based on mutual consent, not one based on fear of retribution or desire for gain. The former would be slavery and the latter manipulation. Both would be an insult to the idea of a God who is omnipotent and omniscient.

Jefferson and his fellow nation-builders understood this God-given freedom and stated it in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence….

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty (Freedom) and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson chose all the moral codes and philosophy of Jesus, which he recognized as universal, applicable and good for all mankind regardless of religious beliefs or cultural background. He understood that to impose the more symbolical or ritualistic parts on the general populace would be unjust to them and would be to violate many of their God-given rights.

Further, many of their forefathers and early settlers who were Puritans, came to the Americas to escape the persecution by the state church. They were not about to make the same mistake of weaving in the Church’s dogmas and doctrines into the Constitution which would restrict the freedom of others.

With these selected moral codes and guiding philosophy, Jefferson, together with many of the early founding fathers of America, laid the foundation to, in my opinion, one of the greatest nations on earth in terms of not just its prosperity but its humanity.

But alas, it is a nation in decline economically and morally as it has abandoned the very moral codes and philosophy for which it was founded upon. True, Christianity is still what most Americans still profess to but for most, it is a religious-cultural and outward adherence rather than a relational and internal submission to Jesus.

Freedom and moral codes or ethics, are not these contradictory? If there is true freedom of choice, why then should there be restrains in the form of morality? Jefferson explained it this way.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Charles Kingsley said, “There are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.”  Morality is when we use our freedom to do right and consider the impact of our action on others.

What Jefferson had in mind was that as a responsible government, it is duty-bound to ensure that its citizens are free but at the same time in the exercise of one’s freedom, others are not deprived of their rights to life, happiness and indeed, freedom as well.

What can we learn from Jefferson today?

Nation builders and national leaders who are guided by strong religious worldviews would do well to understand what is universal and what is unique in their religion.

As leaders who are entrusted with governing a nation, they must take into consideration the fact that in a globalized world, more and more nations are becoming pluralistic in nature and none more so than Malaysia. We are pluralistic in faiths, ethnicity, education and even language.

If one hopes to build a nation that is united in our diversity, one has to identify the moral codes and guiding philosophy that are common and acceptable to all and make them part of the national blueprint. Keep out what is particular, ritualistic and cultural.  These are for our own private observation and piety.  To insist otherwise would only divide and polarised communities.

In closing, I would like to quote a passage from the Bible which I am sure Jefferson would have approved.

Romans 14:17-18…..

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness(justice), peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

My interpretation of this passage by Paul the apostle is this. What is really, really important to God (who, by the way, is Creator of all mankind), is not the religious observances of what we can or cannot eat but that we are internally guided and committed to issues of justice, always working towards peace and with joyfulness as our common goal.

When we keep to these, hey, not only is God happy with us but even those who do not share our faith in God would be happy.

To me, Jefferson got it right as a nation builder and in today’s world where religious extremism is rearing their ugly heads, we can learn from him.  Though I would never cut or condone anyone who materially mutilate any Scriptures but if we are to be a leader of a plural society like Malaysia, we must distinguish the worthy parts of our Scripture which are universal from the rest which are meaningful only to us.

The link to the article – The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson can be found here….