Reacting to David Barton’s appearance on the Daily Show the other day, evangelical historian John Fea, who has been an outspoken opponent of Barton’s dishonesty, points out that his claim to be countering the argument that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist is a straw man:
At the 1:05 mark of Part One, Barton says that the biggest misconception people have about Thomas Jefferson is that he is an “atheist” or a “secularist.” When Stewart pushed Barton to give an example of someone who thinks Jefferson is an atheist he mentioned an atheist group who paid for a billboard somewhere in the “Northwest.” This is a straw man. I do not know of any historian (academic historians are the great bogeyman in Barton’s world view so one might expect that they would be promoting this view) who would say that Jefferson was an atheist. Check out my chapter on Jefferson in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction? Barton will get no argument from me on this specific point. In fact, there are very few people who would argue with him here. So why is there a need to write an entire book about it? I’ll tell you why. Barton wants his followers to think that everyone “out there” says Jefferson was an atheist. What a great way to get his follows to continue in their culture war battle to “take back America.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t quite as much of a straw man as we’d like it to be. It’s certainly true that there are no serious historians of any kind who claim Jefferson was an atheist. And Barton’s example is nonsense; he is almost certainly referring to a billboard put up in Costa Mesa, CA by an ignorant atheist that included a fake quote from Jefferson:
I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.
But even if the quote were accurate, it would not mean that Jefferson was an atheist and even the guy who used it, Bruce Gleason, didn’t claim that he was an atheist. Unfortunately, there are at least two major atheists who have claimed that Jefferson might have been an atheist in secret: Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, apparently relying on Hitchens for that claim. Hitchens’ evidence for that claim was beyond weak; it was all but non-existent, and ignored reams of evidence to the contrary. In his book he wrote:
“Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he faced the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment if only because of the prudence he was compelled to observe during his political life.”
And in an exchange with a fellow atheist who reviewed that book he wrote:
“It can’t be proved that tj was an atheist but it can be argued (a distinction in my book that you ignore). He wrote several times that he faced extinction without “hope or fear”, which certainly means he was not a Christian. No man of any cloth was asked to his well-anticipated deathbed and his headstone/obelisk more or less speaks for itself.”
This is all quite silly. As I wrote at the time:
This might be a reasonable argument if one did not have to explain away nearly two decades of writing that firmly belies a belief in God even when those writings were personal letters to trusted friends and were written after he left public office and politics entirely. For that matter, one also has to explain away the content of writings that Jefferson knew would never see the light of day until after he was dead, like the document that we now call the Jefferson Bible…
To call this evidence of atheism is silly enough on its own; in light of the hundreds and hundreds of times Jefferson not only refers to his own belief in God but condemns the beliefs of others as being so absurd that they would lead people to atheism, it becomes nearly delusional.
This kind of argument is as absurd as anything Barton has ever uttered. Barton could certainly have used this as an example of of secularists claiming Jefferson is an atheist, but it would do little to rescue his central argument. Jefferson was a staunch proponent of a very strict separation of church and state, arguing that even the most benign government declarations in favor of religion, no matter how bland and non-sectarian, were a violation of the First Amendment.