20 October 2006

The Jefferson Bible

Sometimes I think wistfully and sadly to myself of what the United States would have become had we followed the Enlightenment tradition upon which we were based. Today the dominant narrative in the United States is that we were founded as a "Christian Nation." As Lyotard argues, narratives serve the function of legitimation in the present. The stories we tell of the past legitimate how things are organized in the present. What if, instead of the Christian narrative, we instead had a founding narrative of the long struggle Enlightenment thinkers had overcoming superstition and despotic oppression such as that seen with respect to the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition? As Kant writes,
Enlightenment is the human being's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one's own understanding without the direction of another. This immaturity is self-incured when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the direction of another. Sapere aude! (dare to be wise!). Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment. (Practical Philosophy, 17)
The immature one is the child that requires a parent to direct them. The child is unable to direct himself, and is a slave to his passions, thereby requiring the strong hand of parental authority to guide them through threats and punishments. The adult, by contrast, is that being capable of directing oneself, of becoming ones own legislator. The adult does not eat all the Halloween candy because he is threatened with going to bed early, but because he knows that it will make him sick. I do not refrain from murdering my fellow because I am threatened by the boogyman of eternal damnation, but because I recognize this destroys the social fabric and the vitality of my own life. Throughout history we have again and again heard these arguments whenever one group would exploit another. Prior to Women's Suffrage, women were portrayed as immature children whose minds were filled with all sorts of fanciful ideas and passions, and who therefore required the strong hand of men to govern and control them. Mary Wollstonecraft had to stand up and demonstrate that women are capable of reason, that their behavior is a result of being denied education, and therefore they have the right to govern themselves. Slaves were portrayed as children driven by passions, superstition, and primitive ideas, thereby justifying the right to keep them enslaved as left to their own devices they would run amock. It would take a Frederick Douglas to stand up and demonstrate, once again, that this was the result of being prevented from developing themselves, that African-Americans were capable of reason and therefore self-legislation.

Jefferson had a different vision of the United States and of Christianity. For those not familiar with it, you can read about the concept behind the Jefferson Bible here and read the book itself here. What would the United States look like today had this Enlightenment path been followed? What unheard forms of legitimation would we possess? Instead we get this, from whence some 7% of the current interns to the current administration came from. Poke around a bit, it's illuminating. Read the mission statement in the "about" section, and google their political activities.

If you have difficulty connecting to the second link, it can also be found here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

Yes, Jefferson would have been horrified at the massive religious primitivism of present day America. Although officially a Deist as most Enlightenment thinkers, he admirably revealed his real position in several passages,

"I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Million of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth." Notes on Religion, passed in the Assembly of Virginia, in 1786.

"Christian creeds and doctrines, the clergy's own fatal inventions, through all the ages has made of Christendom a laughterhouse, and divided it into sects of inextinguishable hatred for one another." Letter to Thomas Whittemore, June 5, 1822.

While I’m writing this, I’m looking at a framed portrait of him that’s hanging on my wall. Ever since I read Willard Sterne Randall’s biography on a recent month-long trip to the U.S., ending up at his home at Monticello, he has fascinated me.

Often overlooked is his intellectual contribution to the French Revolution in 1789 when he was ambassador to Paris. Through his friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette (who, by the way, supervised the demolition of the captured Bastille and gave its huge key to Thomas Paine to carry across the Atlantic as a personal gift to George Washington) Jefferson in fact drafted “a charter of rights” for France, enshrining habeas corpus, a free press, and the opening up of the financial monopolies.

By the way, Lafayette kept a display copy of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in a double frame in his home, the second frame left empty “waiting for a declaration of the rights of France”.

Last year Christopher Hitchens (yes, the controversial, but always eloquent columnist) published a concise and brief biography of Jefferson in Harper Collins’ series, called “Eminent Lives”.

The title is a real find:

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

Yes. The AUTHOR that was what he was, but ever since, readers have stolen the Lyotardian Grand Narrative and hijacked it for their own petty and stupid purpose. Why is Jefferson no longer a guiding force?

Let me close with another quote from the master stylist:

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

Take that, Levi ;-)

Orla Schantz

October 20, 2006 2:01 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

Grabs chest. A mortal blow!

"Yes. The AUTHOR that was what he was, but ever since, readers have stolen the Lyotardian Grand Narrative and hijacked it for their own petty and stupid purpose. Why is Jefferson no longer a guiding force?"

Your guess is as good as mine. Here is an instance where I believe there needs to be a concerted effort in the United States to create a "mythology" surrounding these Enlightenment thinkers, to counter the twaddle that currently inhabits national discourse.

October 20, 2006 2:09 PM  
Blogger Padraig said...



Yes, The Horror. I'm all too aware of this "college." [Padraig is Gaelic/Irish for Patrick, and my surname is, yes, Henry ...].

Give me liberty or give me a [name-change]deed-pole ...

October 22, 2006 2:19 AM  
Blogger Padraig said...

Some further links below exposing the activities of Patrick Henry College:

1.In The New Yorker:

A college that trains young Christians to be politicians.

2.The Bible College That Leads to the White House:

The campus is immaculate, everyone is clean-cut and cheerful. But just what are they teaching at Patrick Henry College? And why do so many students end up working for George Bush?

by Andrew Buncombe

3.Purge of professors at Patrick Henry College?
By dogemperor
Fri May 26, 2006 at 08:31:29 AM EST

Whilst purges at colleges and seminaries being hijacked by dominionists are nothing new (one of the saddest examples of this being the hijacking of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville), hearing of academic purges at institutions originally set up as dominionist is rather surprising.

Yet this is exactly what JewsOnFirst is reporting--that apparently fully one third of the faculty and staff at Patrick Henry College has left due to further restrictions on academic freedom.

And, as I'll note, Patrick Henry College was never the most academically free institution of higher education in the first place. (Now updated with more info below.)

4.A major rift over academic freedom at Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical school in northern Virginia founded especially for students who have been home-schooled. The school places many interns at the White House and Capitol. Five of Patrick Henry's 16 full-time faculty members have resigned claiming the school's administration stifled academic debate.


5.And, finally, an extremely bizarre, inter-exciting feedback projective "interpretation"of PHC's agenda:

Patrick Henry Christian College: could it be a front for an extremist Madrasa?


October 22, 2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks for the great links Padraig! I hope others will take a look at them. Very interesting observations with your own time teaching.

October 22, 2006 4:48 PM  

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