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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Christopher Hitchens Strikes Out on Thomas Jefferson

One of my favorite things about early American religious history (one of my favorite topics to study) is the juxtaposition of actual history with the rhetoric of today's culture warriors who pose as historians. When pseudo-historians like David Barton or Howard Zinn present their cases to a historically illiterate public, they do so knowing that most of the resistance they will meet will come in the form of watered-down political/religious rhetoric that usually fizzles out somewhere on the never-ending highway of cable news and talk radio. And though most choose to accept the rhetoric of their chosen "team" in this never-ending culture war, I believe that it is still important to at least attempt to expose the historical faux pas wherever they may creep up. Whether it be a strange Glenn Beck rant or a Peter Lillback blunder, I believe that the "umpires" of history should call these impostors out whenever possible.

And today, I believe we have found another batter, who despite his massive swing and impressive batting average, has whiffed on a pitch that he promised to take yard. In one of his last works of mortality, Christopher Hitchens, the Late, great intellectual and atheist extraordinaire, elected to stand in the box and take a few swings at the religious legacy of one Thomas Jefferson. In his 2009 biography on Jefferson, Hitchens claimed that he wanted to present a more nuanced view of his subject than is usually found in the works of Jefferson critics and worshipers. Despite this claim, Hitchens' work quickly diverts from his supposed path of objectivity and travels head-on into an inevitable collision with modern pop-culture, thus rendering the work to be of little historical value. Aside from its strange conclusions on Jefferson's relationships with his mother and with Meriwhether Lewis, not to mention its lack of historical perspective on slavery, Indians, etc., Hitchens' book makes some astonishing claims in the very department that Hitchens loves/hates most: religion.

Right from the start, it becomes very obvious that Hitchens is attempting to "claim" Jefferson for the atheist camp more than he is trying to let Jefferson speak for himself. Hitchens somehow feels qualified to read between the lines of Jefferson's public and private declarations on religion, which affords him the ability to claim atheism where no atheism is to be had. For example, when discussing the final days of Jefferson's life, Hitchens writes:

(Pp. 182).
As his days began to wane, Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he face the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much as to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgement if only because of the prudence he was compelled to reserve during his political life
In other words, Hitchens says, "Jefferson was probably an atheist but he couldn't admit it, due to his political duties."

And though it is true that Jefferson was far from being a Christian in any traditional way, to claim that Jefferson invoked religion purely for political reasons is reading between the lines. Virtually everything that Jefferson ever wrote on his personal religious beliefs reveal a private devotion to a providential god of nature, not a rejection of deity. So, while Hitchens was right to say that we must "reserve judgement" on Jefferson's religion, he could have done without the followup lines on political prudence being the exclusive reasons behind Jefferson's approval of religion.

***Strike 1***

Along with his weak attempt at portraying Thomas Jefferson as a closet atheist, Hitchens also fumbles the ball on his interpretation of deism. For Hitchens, deism of the 18th century was a strict belief in the absence of God from human affairs. No product of the Enlightenment could believe in any form of an intervening providential God and claim deism. This later proves problematic for Hitchens when he tries to classify Jefferson's public profession of faith (because he was privately an atheist) as deism, since Jefferson himself seemed to believe in a god who participated in human affairs:

(Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18).
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever

And finally, Hitchens takes his final hack of the bat when he incorrectly interprets Jefferson's motives for rewriting the Bible to his own liking. Hitchens claims that Jefferson's creation of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was meant to "[Throw] away all of the superfluous, ridiculous and devotional parts" of the Bible, and expunge "all mentions of angels, miracles and the resurrection" all in an effort to to separate "reason from faith." And though it is true that Jefferson removed many of the New Testament miracles, not all of the "ridiculous and devotional parts" were taken out. For example, Jefferson's "Bible" retains Jesus' emphasis on prayer, along with the blessings that come as a result. Jefferson's Bible also retains many of the teachings on the Father and the Holy Ghost, and their role(s) in assisting mankind. And perhaps most striking, Jefferson's Bible retains the belief that Jesus Christ himself will one day return to earth to judge mankind.

So much for the Jefferson Bible doing away with "all ridiculous and devotional parts." (Hat tip: M. DeForrest).

STRIKE 3. You're OUT!!!***

In summation, though Hitchens was a brilliant speaker, debater, writer and intellectual, he was not a historian. His biography (which really shouldn't even be considered a real biography but more of a "treatment") of Jefferson does not add much to the historiography of one of America's greatest statesmen. Regardless of this fact, Hitchens' book, like so many others from fellow culture warriors on both sides, is likely to influence many who regard history as the pursuit of "presentist" agendas mingled with the past. For me the book is pretty much on an equal footing with anything written by David Barton, Peter Lillback or Howard Zinn: on demand, fast food, quick fix, feel good, pill-that-numbs-the-pain, diluted commentary, camouflaged as history.

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