Will the Jefferson Bible Spark New Smithsonian Controversy?

The Smithsonian is about to get in hot water again. Just a few months ago, the museum was plunged into controversy around a work of art that included an image of a crucifix with ants crawling across it. It was as if those unassuming ants opened the very gates of Hell as members of Congress made time in their schedules to comment and protesters rallied around the clock. The pressure culminated in the much disputed removal of the piece.

Imagine how much worse the uproar will be when word gets out about the latest item to be on display. Many Americans would be disturbed to even see a picture of a page from the Bible torn out, all the supernatural words removed with scissors. That has to be worse than ants, right? But if they heard the person so mutilating the Bible was a government official, cries from the religious right would swiftly label it more evidence of the atheist take-over, perhaps calling it an attack on Christianity! But this is exactly what the Smithsonian will put on display this November.

The Smithsonian recently began the painstaking restoration of one of America's great hidden treasures: what is called the "Jefferson Bible." Composed through a process of rigorous editing, Thomas Jefferson assembled a spare, concise book that was devoid of supernatural events from six different Biblical texts. Even the crowning moment of the Christian story, the Resurrection, is completely deleted from Jefferson's version. What would Glenn Beck say?

Pundits like Beck would have you believe that the Founding Fathers were devout believers who saw America as a Christian nation. They point to the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, noting that natural rights are "endowed by [a] Creator" and the fact that many Founding Fathers cited God and Christianity in personal correspondence, some even offering religious invocations in public settings.

But the Founding Fathers shared little consensus on religion. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were explicit deists. Franklin's writings revealed "some Doubts as to [Jesus's] divinity," but he was also called the "Prophet of Tolerance" for his embrace of a diverse Christian faiths. Paine's deism was Unitarian and anti-Christian, which sometimes put him at odds with a number of the Founders.

Indeed, Paine's "the Age of Reason" prompted such a vigorous debate amongst the founding set that even Jefferson argued against its publication, with Franklin outright condemning it. But even Paine was sure to point out his belief in a Creator whenever he was faced with the terrifying charge of "atheist," which remains a dirty word in Washington. Though Rep. Pete Stark admits to not believing in a god, the Pew Forum reports that not a single member of the 112th Congress openly identifies as atheist.

This atheist charge was leveled too at Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Madison, the author of the Constitution and no friend to organized religion, composed a "Detached Memoranda" to the Constitutional Conventions decrying religious influence as injurious to public life. Later, attacking a proposal by Patrick Henry to have the state equally fund Christian churches, Madison took aim at the history of organized Christianity:

During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

Patrick Henry, however, was a committed Christian. He took faith so seriously that when his wife Sarah died of a reputed case of demonic possession he refused to give her a Christian burial and instead had her interred 30 feet beneath the ground near his home, an act which makes Gingrich's three marriages in the name of patriotism appear tame.

Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists continues to be the subject of interpretative controversy. Jefferson said that "Religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God..." and called the First Amendment "that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature ... [was] building a wall of separation between Church & State." Yet, ambiguity exists even in language as strong as this because Jefferson was referring to Congress when he used the term "their legislature," and as a states' rights proponent, Jefferson may have approved state level religious tests, even though such was forbidden at the federal level.

The Founding Fathers did not hold one view on religion but they did advocate for tolerance. Most were openly skeptical about the doctrines of religion but all saw America as an opportunity to start anew and build a community where religious liberty could flourish. Even the famously devout Henry advocated for toleration of people of all faiths.

So politicians today, like Rep. Randy Forbes from Jefferson's home state of Virginia, are wrong when they argue that Christianity is America's founding religion. In fact, one of the first treaties ratified by the newly minted United States Senate explicitly disavowed Christianity as America's official religion. The Treaty of Tripoli, submitted and signed into law by John Adams, declared: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen."

Two hundred years after the treaty's signing, many refuse to accept its premises. President Obama took fire from the likes of Fox News after reciting this quote during a 2009 speech in Turkey.

In a time when some of our nation's opinion leaders spend time targeting art on display at the Smithsonian, and endorsing a government role for Christianity in America, the views of the Founders provide some much needed grounding. And partisans on either side of the debate would do well to consult the well worn book that Jefferson compiled by hand. For just seeing it is a reminder that this is a country of diverse beliefs and convictions, none of which have a special claim to legitimacy.