American Spectator Treads Lightly on The Jefferson Lies

An article out today in the American Spectator by Mark Tooley treads lightly on David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies but manages some good observations before falling a bit at the end. I do appreciate Tooley’s mention of Getting Jefferson Right in a positive manner.

Tooley zeros in on an aspect of The Jefferson Lies that we also cover in our book but which has not gotten much attention in public commentary — Barton’s claim  that Jefferson was moved to change his religious views by the Primitivist/Restoration movement. Barton says Jefferson was orthodox in belief until the end of his life when he became affiliated with central Virginia preachers in those movements. Tooley gently disagrees:

Barton’s linking Jefferson to early 19th century Christian Primitivism and Restorationism (whose descendants largely became Trinitarian and are today in the modern Churches of Christ and the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) is provocative but, at least in his book, somewhat lacking in direct evidence. Most religious writers tie Jefferson’s religious beliefs to European Enlightenment thinkers.

Although understated, Tooley is right. Barton only direct evidence in The Jefferson Lies — an alleged friendship with James O’Kelly – is a legend with no factual support.

Tooley’s other main point — that people on the right, left and in between, want Jefferson to support their views is of course true. However, where Tooley ends up is not as clear to me. Tooley writes:

It’s pointless to claim Jefferson for the modern Religious Right. But it’s even more absurd to equate him with Norman Lear. And Bishop Willimon’s implication that Jefferson was a sort of Robespierre who drove religion into the closet is equally baseless. Like nearly all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson spoke and acted on grand themes that transcend most modern American ideological categories. That the Religious Right and secular Left can both at times claim Jefferson likely would delight him.

I see in my research no indication that being cast as simultaneously orthodox and unorthodox would delight Jefferson. Stated somewhat differently, I think Jefferson would like it if the right and left moved toward each other, leaving behind that which causes schism. Jefferson hoped for a more peaceful religious syncretism, once telling James Fishback in an 1809 letter that “It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the innocent questions on which we schismatise.”