Jefferson, Paine and Jesus

I had an interesting exchange on my friend Justin Scheiber’s Facebook page with a Christian apologist named John Barron, who has apparently argued with Justin in the past. The exchange was about Dinesh D’Souza. Barron thinks that D’Souza is largely correct in his conclusions but not very good at presenting them and I said the following:

I’ve been reading and critiquing his work for a decade. I met him a few months ago when he debated Susan Jacoby. I went into it it already thinking that he was highly dishonest and left thinking that he was extraordinarily dishonest. I wrote several detailed critiques of his arguments and devoted two hours of my radio show to documenting his absurd and dishonest handling of the evidence. As just one example, he repeatedly argued that Thomas Jefferson’s use of the term “creator” in the Declaration of Independence was proof that Christianity was the absolute core of America’s founding, while simultaneously arguing that Thomas Paine was an anti-religious and anti-Christian crank. The reality, of course, is that Jefferson and Paine were in almost complete agreement in their views about Christianity.

Barron replied with nothing but a casual “no they weren’t,” to which I responded:

Then please spell out the differences. Both argued that much of the Bible was wrong and based on lies made up by the authors. Both rejected the trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the claims of miracles and all other mythological elements of the Jesus story. D’Souza’s answer when I challenged him on this was to claim that the difference was that Jefferson admired Jesus’ ethical teachings while Paine did not, but that isn’t true. In the very first chapter of the Age of Reason, Paine delivers an extended defense of the ethical teachings of Jesus that was pretty much identical to Jefferson’s. So where do you think the differences lie?

Barron then left this reply:

when Jefferson said he was a Christian, what did he mean by that? And the “Jefferson Bible” was not to edit out the parts he believed were false, it was an “edited” version to include only Jesus teachings. Where do you get that Jefferson rejected what you claim, out of curiosity?

And I replied:

Wow, seriously? Are you that unfamiliar with Jefferson’s letters that you even have to ask that question? A fuller answer, with citations, will have to wait until I finish an interview for my book. But seriously, you cannot possibly ask that question if you had more than a glancing familiarity with Jefferson’s writings on the subject.

And then he doubled down on his ignorance:

if Jefferson (who claimed to be a Christian) had the same views as Paine (an Atheist) on God, Jesus and Christianity, you’ve got some splainin to do. You cant just ask me questions about my familiarity. You should probably offer something more than questioning me.

So he’s proven at this point that he is as ignorant of Paine as he is of Jefferson. Paine was certainly no atheist, for crying out loud. His book The Age of Reason began with a profession of faith:

As several of my colleagues, and others of my fellow-citizens of France, have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

Paine was strongly anti-religious, but he was surely no atheist. And one can stay in that same first chapter to find his views on the ethical teachings of Jesus:

NOTHING that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.

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