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

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9780374529567: American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

Jesus the Black Messiah; Jesus the Jew; Jesus the Hindu sage; Jesus the Haight-Asbury hippie: these Jesuses join the traditional figure of Jesus Christ in American Jesus, which was acclaimed upon publication in hardcover as an altogether fresh exploration of American history--and as the liveliest book about Jesus to appear in English in years.

Our nation's changing images of Jesus, Stephen Prothero contends, are a kind of looking class into the national character. Even as most Christian believers cleave to a traditional faith, other people give Jesus a leading role as folk hero, pitchman, and countercultural icon. And so it has been since the nation's founding--from Thomas Jefferson, who took scissors to his New Testament to sort out true from false Jesus material; to the Jews, Buddhists and Muslims who fit Jesus into their own traditions; to the people who adapt Jesus for stage and screen and the Holy Land theme park. American Jesus is "a lively, illuminating and accessible survey that takes us into unexpected corners of our shared religious heritage" (Dan Cryer, Newsday).

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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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

American Jesus
PART ONEResurrectionsOneENLIGHTENED SAGEThomas 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.1Today 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."2This "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.3Characteristically, 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."THE FIRST OF HUMAN SAGES"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."5The 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."6Given 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.7JEFFERSON'S RAZOROn 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."8Jefferson 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.9Jefferson 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.CHRISTIANITY, TRUE AND FALSEAfter 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 o...

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