American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

by Stephen Prothero
American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

by Stephen Prothero

Paperback(First Edition)

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A Deep Dive into America's Complex Relationship with Jesus

There's no denying America's rich religious background–belief is woven into daily life. But as Stephen Prothero argues in American Jesus, many of the most interesting appraisals of Jesus have emerged outside the churches: in music, film, and popular culture; and among Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and people of no religion at all.

Delve into this compelling chronicle as it explores how Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, has been refashioned into distinctly American identities over the centuries. From his enlistment as a beacon of hope for abolitionists to his appropriation as a figurehead for Klansmen, the image of Jesus has been as mercurial as it is influential. In this diverse and conflicted scene, American Jesus stands as a testament to the peculiar fusion of the temporal and divine in contemporary America.

Equal parts enlightening and entertaining, American Jesus goes beyond being simply a work of history. It’s an intricate mirror, reflecting the American spirit while questioning the nation's socio-cultural fabric.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374529567
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 731,178
Product dimensions: 5.41(w) x 8.28(h) x 1.09(d)

About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is the author of The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott and Purified by Fire: Cremation in American Culture. He has written for Salon and other publications.

Read an Excerpt

American Jesus





Thomas Jefferson is revered in the United States today as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the architect of the First Amendment, and one of the saints of American civil religion. Though questions persist regarding his views on race and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, he is widely respected nonetheless as one of the nation's great champions of individual freedom. Jefferson's reputation was quite different in his own time. In fact, the country's third president was one of the most polarizing politicians of his day. At the turn of the nineteenth century, you either loved him or you hated him, and for his enemies there was nothing more odious about the man than his unconventional religion (or lack thereof).

New England's ministers denounced Jefferson as an atheist during his failed bid for the presidency in 1796. In his successful 1800 effort to unseat President John Adams, he endured personal attacks that plumbed depths seldom seen in U.S. politics. Jefferson's Federalist opponents smeared him as an idiot and a coward whose antediluvian nostalgia for agrarian life would kill the mercantile economy. But much of the character assassination focused on Jefferson's unusualfaith. According to the Federalists, Jefferson was an infidel and Jacobin whose damnable flirtations with the French goddess of reason were sure to bring down the country. The election "of a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation, and ... a rebellion against God," warned the Reverend William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York. It would "destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society" Not all the religious politicking broke the same way, however. Following Jefferson's victory, Abraham Bishop, a Republican supporter, likened "the illustrious chief, who, once insulted, now presides over the union" to "him who, once insulted, now presides over the universe." He then compared those who voted against Jefferson with Jews who refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah.1

Today we know as much about Jefferson's faith as we do about the faith of any other Revolution-era statesman. In his own time, however, Jefferson's piety was a closely guarded secret. The man who appended to the First Amendment the metaphor of a "wall of separation between church and state" also believed in a wall of separation between the public and the private, and he relegated religion (religiously, we might say) to the private realm. "Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone," Jefferson wrote in an 1814 letter. "I enquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine."2

This "don't ask, don't tell" policy made it difficult for opponents to criticize Jefferson for what they suspected was infidelity, so they dug around for clues in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), his only published book. There Jefferson attacked religious establishments and defended religious freedom, arguing in a now-famous passage that "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." Seizing on this passage, partisans of Adams insisted that heterodoxy and anarchy were the closest of kin. "Let my neighbor once persuade himself that there is no God," Linn fumed, "and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck. If there be no God, there is no law." A "Christian Federalist," no less alarmed, viewed the prospect of Jefferson's election as the beginning of the end of his Christian nation."Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt," he wrote, "that if Jefferson is elected, and Jacobins get into authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin—which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence—defend our property from plunder and devastation, and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon and exploded." Such vituperations did not prevent Jefferson from winning the White House, but they did send Federalists into a postelection frenzy After a rumor circulated that President Jefferson had decreed a bonfire of the biblical vanities, housewives in New England reportedly squirreled away their scriptures in well, to prevent them from being burned by the flames of Jeffersonian free thought.3

Characteristically, Jefferson refused to reply directly to his critics, but he did organize a defense. In a series of letters to friends such as the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush and the British scientist Joseph Priestley, he described his faith in considerable detail. This private correspondence, which includes most famously a "Syllabus of an Estimate on the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others" (enclosed in an 1803 letter to Rush), demonstrates that Jefferson may have been, as one biographer has put it, "the most self-consciously theological of all America's presidents."4 It also illustrates Jefferson's deep devotion to Jesus or, to be more precise, to Jesus' moral teachings, which constituted for Jefferson the essence of true religion. Some interpreters have described these private missives as politically inspired leaks meant to counter criticisms of Jefferson's atheism. That judgment is too harsh. Jefferson probably knew that news of his unorthodox creed would not remain entirely private. But the letters themselves testily eloquently to the sincerity and depth of his Jesus piety.


Jefferson (1743—1826) was born and raised an Anglican, and he never formally renounced that connection. But as a boy, he began to question fundamental Anglican tenets, including the doctrine of the Trinity. After immersing himself in theological works by Enlightenmentrationalists, he considered jettisoning religion altogether in his late teens. But works by the British Unitarian Joseph Priestley, particularly An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), An History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786), and Socrates and Jesus Compared (1803), convinced him that he did not have to choose between religion and reason, faith and common sense.

Priestley, whom Jefferson befriended after the scientist-turned-theologian came to the United States from England in 1794, prided himself on approaching religious questions in the light of reason and common sense. He built his theological system, however, on what can only be described as a myth. According to that myth, the religion of Jesus was as simple as it was sublime. It affirmed one God, taught the afterlife, and insisted on moral living. But beginning with Paul and the writers of the Gospels, later Christians hijacked his simple religion, overlaying it with complex dogmas and empty rites. The solution to this problem was to get up a new coup. In the distant past, Christianity had overthrown Jesus; now it was time for partisans of Jesus to overthrow Christianity.

In his private writings on religion, Jefferson followed Priestley closely. He praised Jesus as "meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence," and his system of morals as "the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." Then he blasted "the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an imposter." Jefferson's list of these corruptions was long, extending to dogmas such as original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, predestination, salvation by faith, transubstantiation, bodily resurrection, and above all the Trinity. "It is too late in the day," Jefferson wrote in 1813, "for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet the one is not three, and the three are not one." The only interests such Trinitarian sophistries served were the interests of entrenched priests and ministers, who played the same villainous rolein Jefferson's spiritual world that kings occupied in his republican politics. In an effort "to filch wealth and power to themselves," Jefferson wrote, these tyrants had perverted the pure morals of Jesus into "an engine for enslaving mankind."5

The antidote to this illness, Jefferson argued, was a religious revolution as radical as the events of 1776: a repudiation of the spiritual slavery of creeds and rites and a return to the pure, primitive teachings of Jesus. So far this was pure Priestley. But in at least one important respect, Jefferson was more radical than his Unitarian friend. He rejected Priestley's Socinian position that God had empowered Jesus to perform miracles and even to rise from the dead. Miracles, Jefferson insisted, were an affront to the demands of reason and the laws of nature, and Jesus had performed not a one. Jefferson's refusal to view Jesus as a miracle worker might have marked him as a Deist, but his anti-supernaturalism did not detract a whit from his appraisal of Jesus. In fact, if anything, Jefferson heaped more praise upon the man than did his British colleague. Jesus was, in Jefferson's words, "the first of human Sages."6

Given his views of the corruptions of the religion of this preeminent sage by Paul and his heirs, it should not be surprising that Jefferson saw the New Testament as corrupt too. Noting that Jesus had written nothing himself, he argued that the Gospels were drafted by "the most unlettered, and ignorant of men." As a result, Jesus' teachings had come down "mutilated, mistated, and often unintelligible." It took a discerning man to dig back through "the metaphysical abstractions of Athanasius, and the maniac ravings of Calvin" to the true teachings of Jesus, but Jefferson saw himself as just the fellow for the job.7


On January 20, 1804, Jefferson ordered from a Philadelphia bookseller two copies of the King James Version of the New Testament, each of the same translation and edition. Roughly two weeks later, he received a pair of nearly identical volumes, each published by George Grierson in Dublin in the 1790s. As the sitting president, Jeffersonhad plenty of things to do other than read scripture. He had just doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, and England was at war with France. But somehow he found time to sit down in the White House with his two Bibles, razor in hand. His goal was to excise from the New Testament the corruptions of Paul and his "Platonizing successors," leaving behind a complete record of the simple gospel of Jesus the enlightened sage. So he began to cut the authentic passages out of his Bibles, pasting them into two columns on 46 octavo sheets (the size favored at the time by ministers). The detritus left behind literally fell to the White House floor.

Dividing the biblical wheat from the chaff might have been an impossible task for lesser minds. In fact, a nearly identical effort some two centuries later by the Jesus Seminar would take hundreds of researchers nearly a decade. But for Jefferson the project took only two or three evenings (and then only after he had done the correspondence for his day job). In fact, he found the task "obvious and easy"; the true sayings, he later wrote, were "as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill."8

Jefferson called his micro-Testament "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth" and indicated in a lengthy subtitle that the book was intended "for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension." Some have taken the subtitle literally, imagining that Jefferson compiled the book for the edification of Native Americans. But the subtitle was really a jab at his Federalist critics, particularly the ministers of New England Congregationalism whose unquestioning allegiance to Calvinist complexities blinded them in his view to the simple faith of Jesus. For no purpose other than self-aggrandizement, these "Pseudo-Christians" had dressed Jesus up "in the rags of an Imposter." Jefferson's book stripped off those rags, garbing Jesus once again in the simple robes of a Galilean sage.9

Jefferson did not make plain the principles of inclusion and exclusion he employed to distinguish the voice of Jesus from later corruptions, but they are easy enough to discern. He excised all miracles and eliminated all legends surrounding Jesus' virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In other words, he left on the White Housefloor any passage with even a whiff of supernaturalism. What survived was a severely abridged text that, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (not known to Jefferson), consisted entirely of Jesus' sayings. In Jefferson's book, Jesus prayed to God and affirmed the afterlife, but he was not born in a manger and he did not die to atone for anyone's sins. In fact, he did little more than wander around Galilee delivering pithy moral aphorisms. Jefferson characterized "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth" as a "precious morsel of ethics" and it was a thin book.10 In fact, only about one in ten Gospel verses survived Jefferson's razor.

In 1819 or 1820, Jefferson compiled a second scripture by subtraction, calling it "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Popularly known as the Jefferson Bible, this text is often confused with "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth," in part because it too is a cut-and-paste job and because the earlier book has never been found.11 But the two Jefferson Bibles are actually quite distinct. In the later work, published by the U.S. Congress in 1904 and now held in the National Museum of American History in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Jefferson again excised passages "of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications." 12 But this time he included, in addition to the genuine sayings of Jesus, his authentic actions. Unlike "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth," which was executed in English only, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" presented its passages in Greek, Latin, and French as well as English. Finally, while the former effort had been arranged topically, the latter was structured chronologically.

Jefferson's second Bible put some skin on the bare bones of "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth," but it too was a skimpy work. At least to readers familiar with the New Testament, it begins and ends abruptly. Rather than starting, as the Gospel of John does, with Jesus the eternal Word, Jefferson raises his curtain on a political and economic matter: Caesar's decree that all the world should be taxed. He concludes his story with this hybrid verse taken from the Gospels of Matthew and John: "There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." Between these scenes, there are no angels, no wise men, and not a hint of the resurrection.


After he completed "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth," Jefferson claimed in correspondence with a friend that his Bible demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian: "It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." Earlier he had told Benjamin Rush, "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other." Whether Jefferson really was a Christian has been much debated, both in his time and in ours. Over the last two hundred years, Jefferson has been called an atheist and an infidel, a theist and a Deist, a Unitarian and an Anglican, an Epicurean and a secular humanist. In fact, the list of historical Jeffersons is nearly as long (and creative) as the list of historical Jesuses.13

What is most clear about Jefferson's faith is what he was not, and what he was not was a traditional Christian. Jefferson unequivocally rejected the Nicene Creed, which has defined orthodoxy for the overwhelming majority of Christians since 381, as well aS the Council of Chalcedon (451 ) formula of Jesus as "truly God and truly man." He sneered at Calvinist verities such as predestination, which throughout his political career dominated American religious thought, and was particularly contemptuous of the doctrine of the Trinity ("mere Abracadabra" and "hocus-pocus phantasm," he said, distinguishable from paganism "only by being more unintelligible"). The sleight of hand clerics had used to split the one true God into three had also been employed, in Jefferson's view, to substitute the real Christianity of Jesus for the false "Platonic Christianity" of the so-called Christian churches.14

Later in U.S. history, thinkers as different as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen would draw sharp distinctions between the false Christianity of the churches and the true Christianity of Jesus. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass professed his love of "the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ" and his hatred of "the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering,partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land." He observed a vast gulf dividing the "slaveholding religion" of America from "the Christianity of Christ." In fact, that gulf was "so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked." Machen, who raged against modernism rather than slavery, drew his line in the sand between the supernaturalistic Christianity of fundamentalism and the naturalistic faith of Protestant modernists (whom he called liberals). These two options were not two different types of Christianity, he argued in Christianity and Liberalism (1923), but two entirely different forms of religion. Liberalism, he insisted, was "anti-Christian to the core."15

For Jefferson, the choice between genuine Christians and the Platonizing deceivers was equally stark. Anticipating Douglass and Machen, Jefferson claimed to represent real Christianity, dismissing his detractors as imposters peddling a counterfeit faith. Athanasius (the defender of the Nicene Creed) and Calvin were "mere Usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a Counter-religion, made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet." The nation's Federalist ministers were no better. These "Pseudo-Christians" and "mountebanks," Jefferson fumed, were "the real Anti-Christ."16

Jefferson's religious genius was his ability to imagine Jesus apart from historical Christianity. If he had been living in another country, where a powerful religious establishment could define how its key symbols were to be interpreted, Jefferson probably would have rejected both Christianity and Jesus (as so many of his French friends had) and left it at that. But in his America, religious establishments were outlawed at the federal level and moribund in the states. So he was able to imagine a Jesus piety that was not beholden to the churches. "The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconcievable, as to drive them rashly to pronounce it's founder an imposter," Jefferson contended.17 But Jefferson himself would not be duped.

Had they been privy to it, Jefferson's opponents would have denounced such rhetoric (and such chutzpah) as uncharitable and unchristian. So it is with some justification that conservative Christiansand secular humanists alike now see the "Virginia Voltaire" as a harbinger of secular America. Yet twenty-first-century America is anything but secular, and Jefferson was a deeply religious man. To be sure, Jefferson was no traditional Christian. But he was no atheist either. In fact, he saw atheism as irrational, and monotheism as the only natural faith. In this respect, he typified not the radical Enlightenment of France but the moderate Enlightenment of his home country. While the freethinker Thomas Paine bragged that he went "through the Bible as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulders and fell trees," Jefferson went through the New Testament with shears and pruning hooks, cutting away the dead wood so the remaining text could live and breathe. True, his rational religion ran in rivulets outside the American mainstream, but heterodoxy is faith of a different form and, like orthodoxy, should be recognized for what it is: a way of being religious. Jefferson has been called an infidel, an atheist, and even the anti-Christ. What he was was a follower of Jesus, or at least of the rational sort of Jesus a leader like Jefferson could follow.18


In an 1822 letter to Jefferson, the Unitarian James Smith called Jesus "the most perfect model of Republicanism in the Universe." Jefferson's Jesus was a republican too: a great moral teacher who spread the gospel of liberty, fraternity, and equality across ancient Palestine and, via apostles such as Jefferson, through the United States as well.19

To Jefferson, Jesus was a man rather than a god, and he was a man after Jefferson's own heart. "Fear God and love thy neighbor," Jefferson wrote in an 1816 letter, is the "sum of all religion." And so his Jesus was first and foremost an ethical guide. He was not sent by God to die on a cross and atone for humanity's sins. He came not to save, but to teach. Or, he came to save by teaching. Jefferson's Jesus, in short, was an enlightened sage. His moral philosophy was "more pure, correct and sublime than those of the antient philosophers." And nothing in that philosophy contradicted either religion or science.20

Because Jesus' understanding of religion was at odds with the religious authorities of his time, he was by necessity a reformer of Judaismas well as a teacher of moral philosophy. While Moses had worshiped "a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust," Jesus worshiped a God of "wisdom, justice, goodness." While Moses ignored the afterlife, "Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision." While Moses "had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances," Jesus "exposed their futility and insignificance," shifting the locus of true religion from rites to ethics, acts to intentions. This "great Reformer of the Hebrew code" also proved himself the superior of Moses in his preaching of "universal philanthropy." Rejecting the parochialism of the chosen people ideal, he demanded that we offer our love "not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind," insisting that all human beings were part of "one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants, and common aids."21

Everyone reads the Bible selectively, employing a "canon within the canon," which emphasizes certain books and passages while neglecting others. The tendency of evangelical Christians, who accept the entire Bible as the Word of God, to emphasize the New Testament over the Old is well known—the religious equivalent of the major league pitcher who rarely ventures over the inside half of home plate. But you don't have to be an evangelical to wear out some pages of the Bible without cracking others. Liberation theologians prefer the prophetic books over the Psalms, and Luke over John; fundamentalists focus on the Passion and Revelation more than Exodus and Leviticus. Jefferson's "canon within the canon" consisted of the Gospels, principally the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Inside those books, Jefferson emphasized the sayings of Jesus. And among those sayings, his favorites came from the Sermon on the Mount.

Jefferson once received a letter containing a sermon called "What Think Ye of Christ?" His coy reply described one possible answer to that question, but that answer was clearly his own. Jesus, Jefferson wrote, was "the Herald of truths reformatory of the religions of mankind in general, but more immediately of that of his own countrymen, impressing them with more sublime and more worthy ideas of the Supreme being, teaching them the doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments, and inculcating the love of mankind." Themarrow of his teaching, Jefferson added, could be found in the Sermon on the Mount, which he characterized as "the stamp of genuine Christianity."22

Though remembered today as a champion of the separation of church and state, Jefferson shared with virtually all of his contemporaries the view that no society could survive without a shared system of morality, and that "no System of morality however pure it might be" could survive "without the sanction of divine authority stampt upon it." But his profession of faith was not merely pragmatic—a bone tossed to the masses to keep them from growling. Jefferson was convinced of the existence of God by the argument from design, which affirmed that the universe, so exquisitely crafted, must have sprung from the mind of an intelligent designer. He was also convinced that God had stamped Jesus' character with his divine imprimatur. Jesus, Jefferson confessed, was "the most innocent, the most benevolent the most eloquent and sublime character that has ever been exhibited to man,"23

In 1812, Monticello's sage heeded Jesus' admonition to love one's enemies when he reconciled with his longtime political foe John Adams. Soon the two men were exchanging a remarkable series of letters on a wide range of topics, religion included. In one telling exchange, Adams wrote wryly of his wish that Jefferson might live until he became a Calvinist, and Jefferson responded that, if granted, such a wish would make him immortal. Calvin, Jefferson added, "was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did."24

Adams worshipped no such God. Like Priestley, he was a Unitarian, and he corresponded with Jefferson while the Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century was at its height. That controversy, which ran from 1804 until the establishment of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, touched on the doctrine of the Trinity, but centered on human nature. While traditionalists affirmed Calvin's dogma of the total depravity of human beings, Unitarians defended the more optimistic view that human beings were essentially good. Jefferson followed this controversy closely, and he was solidly in the anti-Calvinist camp. In an 1818 letter thanking aNew Hampshire congressman for sending him pamphlets related to that debate, Jefferson aligned himself with the reformers. After praising the Unitarians for continuing the "half reformation" of Christianity begun in the sixteenth century, he expressed his hope that the recovery of "the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ" begun by German Reformers would be completed by American Unitarians. Three years later, Jefferson received from Thomas Pickering, a onetime Federalist foe, a copy of the definitive statement of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing's 1819 discourse on "Unitarian Christianity." One year after that a Unitarian physics professor named Benjamin Waterhouse wrote Jefferson about the Unitarian Controversy. In his reply to Waterhouse, Jefferson provided this succinct summary of the Jeffersonian creed:

1. That there is one God, and he all-perfect.

2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.

3. That to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.

He then closed by prophesying that "there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian."25

Unitarians have pointed to this passage in an effort to prove that Jefferson was one of their own. Others have read the letter, particularly its threefold creed, as quintessentially Deistic. In his private writings, Jefferson repeatedly affirmed his belief in a nominal religion that distilled true religion down to God, the afterlife, and moral living. Deists typically invoked this same holy Trinity, so there is some justification for aligning Jefferson with them. Yet in his writings on religion, Jefferson repeatedly, even obsessively, invoked the name of Jesus, something Deists were generally loath to do. Surely Jefferson was closer to Deism than he was to atheism, but he was closer still to Unitarianism. If Jefferson were to wander today into a Unitarian Universalist church—the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961—he would no doubt be greeted with open arms, though he would likely be one of the most theologically conservativepeople in the pews. But Jefferson was not exactly a standard-issue Unitarian, since he rejected the miracles, which those "supernatural rationalists" affirmed.26

Toward the end of his life, Jefferson wrote, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."27 This is a wonderfully American conceit, and it has been repeated by multitudes, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, and generations of post-sixties undergraduates. But like most conceits it has a lie in it. Jefferson did not feel comfortable labeling himself a Unitarian for the same reason he did not call himself a Baptist or an Episcopalian. According to his own meticulous account books, Jefferson contributed regularly to religious causes, including $200 to the building of an Episcopal church, $60 for a Presbyterian church, and $25 for a Baptist church in one year alone. From a strictly economic perspective, these figures may prove that Jefferson was more of an Episcopalian than a Presbyterian, and even less of a Baptist. Yet they demonstrate as well that Jefferson saw denominational infidelity as a virtue, not a vice.

Though surely something of a religious independent, Jefferson was first and foremost a partisan of Jesus. And in that party he had many fellow travelers. Yes, Jefferson was unfaithful to traditional Christianity, and he was to that extent an infidel. But his infidelity to traditional Christianity was motivated by his admiration of Jesus, whose moral teachings were to Jefferson as self-evidently true as the proposition that all men are created equal.


Jefferson's legacy in American religion is at least as long as it is in American politics. More than anyone else, Jefferson was responsible for setting the ground rules for religious practice in the United States. His commitment to voluntarism, enshrined today in the First Amendment, transformed his nation into the world's most Christianized country. But it also opened that country to the religious diversity we see today.

Though Jefferson kept his religious views largely to himself, his understanding of Jesus as an enlightened sage spread as the nation expanded, most notably among Unitarians, Reform Jews, and liberalProtestants. By the end of the nineteenth century, many Americans, both Christian and otherwise, had begun to disentangle Jesus from rites and creeds, affirming that his exemplary life was more important than his atoning death. Today, U.S. suburbs are filled with "Golden Rule Christians" who, like Jefferson, believe that the essence of true religion lies in right living rather than right thinking, and that service to others is the highest form of prayer.28

Jefferson's influence is particularly apparent in the case of the Jesus Seminar, which conveyed Jefferson's Jesus into the twenty-first century. Like Jefferson himself, the Jesus Seminar is quintessentially American. Its method is democratic, its goal is freedom, and its obsession is Jesus. The animating spirit of this group, which first met in Berkeley, California, in March 1985, is the renegade New Testament scholar and self-styled agent provocateur Robert Funk. A one-time child evangelist and Bible college student from rural Texas, Funk turned from preaching the gospel to researching its origins while still a young man. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, he taught New Testament at a series of institutions, published a grammar of Hellenistic Greek, and served as president of the Society for Biblical Literature, the leading professional association for Bible scholars. By his own account, he grew tired of the insular world of New Testament scholarship and its jargon-filled journals. He watched in horror as the Reverend Jerry Falwell and other "televangelists" helped to elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980, and was dismayed when his religious studies colleagues remained as mum as Trappists while the Christian Right attempted to draft Jesus as a Reagan Republican. All the while, Funk longed for a broader audience for his work. And with the Jesus Seminar, he found it.

Though no friend of modern-day Republicans, Funk described the Jesus Seminar in the rhetoric of classical republicanism. Its quest for Jesus was a "quest for freedom," and it had three different emancipations in mind. The first was to free the real Jesus of history from the fetters of traditional Christian creeds—to enable Jesus to be himself rather than playing the roles forced upon him by Peter or Paul or the writers of the Nicene Creed. A second aim was to liberate the real Jesus from the chains of born-again mythology. "There are thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans who are the victims of a mythical Jesusconjured up by modern evangelists to whip their followers into a frenzy of guilt and remorse—and cash contributions," Funk declared. "I have a residual hankering to free my fellow human beings from that bondage, which can be as abusive as any form of slavery known to humankind." Finally, the Seminar sought to free Jesus from the cloistered confines of the academy by bringing cutting-edge research about him to the attention of the mass media.29

In the drama that was the Jesus Seminar, Funk played Abraham Lincoln and Robin Hood, casting his Fellows as Union soldiers and Merry Men. Together they would emancipate Americans from their slavish devotion to dogmatic Christianity, and transfer the riches of biblical scholarship from the Ivory Tower to ordinary Americans. In the process, the false Christs of Catholic creeds and the Christian Right would give way to the real Jesus of history. The result, Funk claimed, would be nothing less than a "new reformation" and a "new gospel." Jesus would be born again on American soil.30

Although Funk described his project in revolutionary terms, it was really more of a revival of the spirit of the Enlightenment philosophes, who began in the eighteenth century to apply their beloved precepts of reason and common sense to the study of the Bible. Das Leben Jesu (1835) by the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss and Vie de Jésus (1863) by the French skeptic Ernest Renan popularized this approach, prompting the first quest for the historical Jesus that occupied many European scholars, most of them liberal Protestants. In 1909, the Irish Catholic writer George Tyrrell evaluated their contributions, observing that whenever liberal Protestants tried to dig down the well of Catholic history to the real Jesus they succeeded only in finding their own reflections. "Whatever Jesus was," Tyrrell demurred, "he was in no sense a Liberal Protestant."31

Such criticisms suspended the hunt for the historical Jesus for roughly a half a century, until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s prompted a second search, announced most prominently in A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (1959) by James M. Robinson, now professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University. Chastened by Tyrell's skepticism—and by similar criticisms from the German scholar Albert Schweitzer—the scholars in this "New Quest" (mostly German and American Protestants) did not attempt to constructa complete biography of Jesus. Instead they focused on comparing what little they could know about the historical Jesus with what the Church proclaimed about the living Christ. The New Quest came to an end in the early 1970s as the existential philosophy and neo-orthodox theology that pervaded Jesus research in this period went out of fashion. What Funk and the Jesus Seminar helped to get going in the 1980s was, therefore, a third quest. By the time they started searching for the historical Jesus, the hunt had been on for over a century, and they were stalking old prey.

Still, the Jesus Seminar was not entirely imitative. Two things distinguished its work from earlier quests. First, it was an American rather than a European enterprise. Ernest Renan was French and David Strauss was German, as was Rudolph Bultmann, the famed "demythologizer" whose interest in existentialism inspired the second quest. Funk, by contrast, is an American, as are almost all of his Seminar's Fellows. The second distinguishing mark of the Jesus Seminar was its obsession with publicity. Nineteenth-century "lives of Jesus" sold well, and many were controversial. But Strauss and Renan came by their notoriety honestly—by accident. Funk, by contrast, courted controversy like a lover. Instead of simply denying the virgin birth, he called Jesus a "bastard messiah." Instead of saying the parables were witty as well as wise, he said Jesus was "the first Jewish stand-up comic." Funk believed that Jesus was an iconoclast, and he too wanted to stir the pot. So when rumors began to circulate in the mid-nineties that Paul Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls (and a Seminar Fellow), was planning a feature film based on the group's findings, Funk did nothing to still the storm.32

The first project of the Seminar took six years and focused on the sayings of Jesus. Fellows read and debated papers concerning both canonical and non-canonical sayings. Then they voted to determine what Jesus really said. Voting on the sayings of Jesus requires considerable chutzpah, but the way the Seminar voted was particularly provocative. Fellows were not asked for a simple yea or nay They were instructed instead to cast one of four colored beads into a ballot box. They were to choose red if "Jesus said it or something very close to it" and pink if "Jesus probably said something like it, although his words have suffered in transmission." The two final alternatives weregray ("these are not his words, but the ideas are close to his own") and black ("Jesus did not say it; the words represent the Christian community or a later point of view").33


The Jesus Seminar was designed to provoke, and provoke it did. It presented Jesus as a "subversive sage" who defied not only the religious authorities of his day but also the expectations of contemporary Christians. Its Jesus did not claim to be either God or the Messiah. And he did not recite the Lord's Prayer or deliver the Sermon on the Mount. More at home in the Greek forum than the Jewish synagogue, he was essentially an oracle of moral wisdom, a sage more important for what he said than for what he did. And what he said was to a great extent what Thomas Jefferson put into his mouth two centuries ago.

Many Christians were astounded that anyone would be presumptuous enough to vote a single saying of Jesus out of the Word of God. Others objected to the Seminar's findings rather than its methods. "Who was Jesus?" asked one Letter to the Editor. "I'll stand by the Bible's answer. Isaiah 9:6 describes him: 'Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.' No liberal think tank can improve on this truth." Another letter writer wrote, "Rather than make Jesus conform to pop culture, let's accept him as who God said he was: his son."34

The sharpest attacks came from New Testament scholars, whose railing against the Seminar's methods and assumptions helped touch off the Jesus Wars of the 1990s. Boston University's Howard Clark Kee called the Seminar "an academic disgrace" hell-bent on finding a Jesus "free of such features, embarrassing to modern intellectuals, as demons, miracles and predictions about the future." The Reverend Carl Henry, an evangelical theologian, objected to the Seminar's methods. "You don't settle scholarly issues," he said, "by democratic vote." Another evangelical, the Asbury Theological Seminary professor Ben Witherington III, called the Jesus Seminar to task for obsessing on the teachings, not the Teacher. Rather than a crucified Savior, heargued, the Seminar offers a comic "Talking Head" who "seems a much better candidate for a late-night visit with David Letterman or Jay Leno" than for crucifixion on Golgotha. In 1994, a group calling itself the Fellowship of Merry Christians gave the Jesus Seminar its Scrooge Award, presented annually to the group "whose humbug most insistently dampens the Spirit of Christmas at Christmastime."35

Perhaps the most serious critique was that the Jesus Seminar was plumping for a non-Jewish Jesus. Birger A. Pearson, a New Testament professor at University of California at Santa Barbara, argued that the Seminar was "driven by an ideology of secularization" that caused it to overlook a whole generation of scholarship on the Jewishness of Jesus. The result was an ahistorical and anachronistic Jesus, divorced from Jewish practice. "To put it metaphorically," Pearson wrote, "the Seminar has performed a forcible epispasm on the historical Jesus, a surgical procedure removing the marks of his circumcision."36

As fundamentalists and scholars fumed, the media took it all in, covering Seminar votes like presidential primaries and the mayhem that ensued like a heavyweight prize fight. "Lord's Prayer Isn't His," ran one New York Times headline, while Lingua Franca called its sardonic feature on the group "Away with the Manger." In 1993, a group of ministers in Gary, Indiana, were so incensed by a piece on the Jesus Seminar published in their local newspaper that they burned copies in protest.

Media coverage only intensified as the Seminar racked up its findings, and it reached a crescendo in 1993 with the publication of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. This "red-letter edition" of the four canonical Gospels plus the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas became a bestseller, and put Funk and the Jesus Seminar on the map. In earlier Bibles of this sort, all the sayings of Jesus appeared in red. This book printed those same sayings in either red, pink, gray, or black, depending on the votes they had received in the Seminar. Only 18 percent of the reputed sayings of Jesus received the coveted red or pink ratings; the remaining 82 percent were deemed inauthentic (gray or black). At least in these Gospels, Jesus did not say "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (though thanks to a new colloquial translation called the Scholars Version he did say"damn"). In fact, in the Gospel of John, where the "I am" sayings appear, Jesus said nothing at all. Not one of the sayings attributed to him by John received a red rating.

Beginning in 1991, the Jesus Seminar turned from the sayings of Jesus to his actions. Just as the "What Would Jesus Do?" craze was building among young evangelicals, the Seminar posed the same question in a more scholarly fashion. Members heard papers on 176 different events described in the Bible, and voted on the authenticity of each. Ultimately they determined that Jesus did even less than he said. Out of all the events the Fellows considered, only 29 (16 percent of the total) received red or pink ratings. According to The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (1998), which reported on this second phase of the Seminar's work, Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, did not walk on water, and was not raised from the dead. In a final coup de grace, the Fellows even doubted the story of doubting Thomas.

Funk has described himself as a revolutionary, and he may be. But he is also a foot soldier in a campaign begun two centuries ago by Jefferson. In fact, when seen in the light of Jefferson's bibles, the work of the Jesus Seminar looks like a tortured second draft. Like Jefferson, Funk and his Fellows produced a volume on the sayings of Jesus, then moved on to a volume on his sayings and actions. They too crafted their Jesus largely by subtraction, whittling away all extraneous material from the biblical block in an effort to reveal the real Jesus within.

Their Jesus was a cross between a 1770s philosophe and a 1970s hippie: He was an enlightened sage, but a groovy one. According to the Acts of Jesus, Jesus was no desert ascetic. In fact, he was a "socially promiscuous" "urban partygoer" who loved a good wedding and could eat, drink, and carouse with the best of them. Funk's Fellows "admonished themselves repeatedly to be wary of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial or congruent with the interests and concerns of the present age." They aimed at scrupulous objectivity and historical accuracy. But most of them came of age either during the Beat movement of the fifties or the youth movement of the sixties, and as a group they were not able to escape the penumbra of countercultural icons such as Jack Kerouac and Timothy Leary. They called Jesus a"subversive sage," and while they borrowed the noun from the Enlightenment they stole the adjective from the counterculture. Their gospel was reminiscent of Kerouac's roman a clef On the Road, and their Jesus seemed possessed by the spirit of Kerouac's bad-boy hero Neal Cassady. Like Cassady (and Kerouac for that matter), he was a "social deviant," "troublemaker," and "non-conformist" who quit his job and disrespected his mother only to take up with an "entourage of undesirables" "on the road." He preferred to hang out with "the lowly, the poor, the undeserving, the sinner, the social misfits, the marginalized, the humble"—the same people the Beats romanticized as the fellaheen. More poet than prophet, more iconoclast than icon, he was a Dharma Bum of the Galilean variety. No wonder his mother thought he was mad.37

Funk called his Jesus "irreligious, irreverent, and impious"—a "secular sage." He also admitted that the Seminar offered "a wholly secular account of the Christian faith." But his agenda was more than strictly intellectual, and when he says he is on a "spiritual trek" it is hard not to take him at his word. Clearly Funk has moved far beyond what he calls the "secondhand faith" of his born-again youth, but he has not traded that in for secondhand secularity.38

Funk's rhetoric has the ring of the "Death of God" theology of the early 1960s, and his first book, published in 1966, plainly engages with that approach to theology. In that same year, in Radical Theology and the Death of God, Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton put a modern spin on the ancient doctrine of kenosis, or the self-emptying of Jesus in the incarnation. What kenosis really signifies, they argued, is that God has emptied himself of transcendence so that Jesus can become fully immanent in the world. At least for Altizer and Hamilton, this radical reinterpretation of the incarnation abolished the distinction between the sacred and the profane, freeing Jesus to be fully human and allowing Christians to celebrate life in the world as he did—wholeheartedly and without reservation. In Honest to Jesus, Funk speaks of "giving Jesus a demotion" and emptying him of his iconic status. His purpose, however, is not so much to secularize Jesus as to invest him with new spiritual import. The "creedal Christ" must die, Funk argues, so that the real Jesus can rise again. Funk's effort to liberate Jesus from the shackles of creeds, clergy, and churchesseems to be an effort to liberate himself as well. His post-resurrection Jesus, like the Jesus of Altizer and Hamilton, encourages everyone "to celebrate life, to suck the marrow out of existence, to explore, and probe, and experiment, to venture into uncharted seas, without fear of a tyrannical and vindictive God"39

Funk has posted on his Web site "Twenty-one Theses" that beg to be compared to the 95 theses against indulgences that Martin Luther reportedly nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. "The God of the metaphysical age is dead," Funk's manifesto begins. It then dismisses original sin, miracles, the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and the Second Coming of Jesus. It is hard to know what to make of this "Coming Radical Reformation." Surely the rhetoric is part provocation, part publicity But it is difficult to read Funk's work without seeing hope and faith behind it too. Funk does reject most of the traditional beliefs and practices of traditional Christianity. He denies Jesus miracle-making power. He cuts the Gospels down to a sliver of themselves. Yet he does all that in the service of faith (an alternative faith, to be sure, but faith nonetheless). Although Funk talks of giving Jesus a demotion, his "new gospel" is radically Jesus-centric, focusing squarely on the historical Jesus and the spiritual liberation he promised. Christianity is "anemic and wasting away," he writes. But this former child evangelist is not trying to euthanize it. In fact, he is hoping to shake it back to life, by redirecting Christians to the pure, primitive teachings of Jesus himself.40

Funk might have dedicated The Five Gospels to Kerouac (or, as one critic recommended, to P. T. Barnum), but he did not. He dedicated it instead to three fellow revolutionaries: Galileo, "who altered our view of the heavens forever"; David Friedrich Strauss, "who pioneered the quest of the historical Jesus"; and Thomas Jefferson, "who took scissors and paste to the gospels."41 Of these three, the real spirit animating the Jesus Seminar was Jefferson, who, nearly two hundred years before Funk's Fellows first gathered, had declared his independence not only from George III and England but also from the irrational creeds and empty rites of historical Christianity. Like Strauss and other pioneering Bible scholars, Jefferson approached the New Testament with skepticism. But he produced "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth" before Strauss was even born. Though he was not atrained Bible critic, he was America's first real scholar of the Bible, and the first U.S. citizen to go on a quest for the historical Jesus.


Thomas Jefferson's influence on American religion can be overstated. His theological views, unorthodox upon his death in 1825, remain unorthodox today; the overwhelming majority of Americans are now Christians who affirm the creedal view of their Savior as fully divine and fully human. Nonetheless, they have inherited from Jefferson a strategy for understanding Jesus and Christianity that continues to drive religious change, from both the left and the right.

That strategy begins with a bold refusal. It starts when a religious reformer refuses to equate Jesus with the Christian tradition. The religion of Jesus, the reformer asserts, is not the same as the religion about Jesus; and what really matters is what Jesus did and taught. The second step is to isolate certain beliefs or practices in the Christian tradition as unreasonable or antiquated or immoral. The next step is to use the cultural authority of Jesus to denounce those beliefs or practices as contrary to true Christianity—to call for religious reform. As these alternative understandings gain ground, Jesus is gradually unmoored from the beliefs, practices, and institutions that in the past had restricted his freedom of movement. He loses no authority among the traditionalists, who continue to see him as they had, but he gains authority among the innovators. As his authority expands, Christians are all the more likely to champion reforms in his name, and the cycle repeats itself over and over again.

But this dynamic does not operate merely inside the Church. It operates inside American culture as well. Non-Christians too can isolate Christian beliefs and practices for criticism, and enlist the authority of Jesus against them. And they need not stop there. In fact, many press on, employing Jesus against Christianity itself. The true religion of Jesus, they argue, was not Christianity at all. It was Judaism. Or Hinduism. Or Buddhism. Or maybe the true religion of Jesus wasn't religion at all. Maybe Jesus was an agnostic or even an atheist. In this way, Jesus is disentangled not just from certain Christian beliefs and practices, but from Christianity (and, in some cases, religion) itself.This strategy too feeds on itself in a grand cycle, as each time it succeeds Jesus acquires more cultural authority.

It is certainly possible to see Jefferson's faith, which says no to Christianity but yes to Jesus, as an enigma, to view Jefferson, who has been called the "American Sphinx," as a paradox not only on race but also on religion.42 Yet Jeffersonian religion is not paradoxical at all. In fact, it represents an impulse that courses through American religious history and is with us today. Jefferson hated what Christianity had become, not despite his love of Jesus, but because of it. And he was able to admire, respect, and perhaps even love "the first of all Sages" only because he was able to separate the religion of Jesus from the religion of Christianity. Jefferson was not of a sect by himself. Millions of Americans today, Christian and otherwise, harbor similar sentiments. In this sense, Jefferson was a Founding Father not only of the United States of America but also of today's Jesus nation.

Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Prothero

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