Jefferson, the Bible and Education

Chuck Norris, who is on the advisory board of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, has been writing a series of columns on Thomas Jefferson, the Bible and education. Because he can’t find anything that Jefferson ever said about the Bible being a part of public education, he is forced, like his pal David Barton, to take little snippets out of context and distort them. To wit:

Rather than remain only in churches or private schools, Jefferson proposed religious education also be incorporated in the public education system, too, but with a twist.

True, Jefferson thought it best that it not be included among the curricula in the earliest stages of children’s schooling. In his own words, he said, “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds, wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here. Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.”

But Jefferson immediately followed those words by clarifying, “The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness.”

So Jefferson was not against religious education in public schools, but against it being inculcated upon those whose “judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.”

Note that he went from the first quote, which says that the Bible should not be included in grammar school, to the second quote, which says nothing at all about the Bible or religion but says that those schools should teach “the first elements of morality.” Like most fundamentalist Christians, he equates morality with Christianity. But the man he is quoting, Jefferson, certainly did not. In an 1814 letter to Thomas Law, Jefferson wrote:

Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. This, too, is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to-wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.

But by all means, if Norris thinks that Jefferson wanted the Bible taught in public schools, let us teach what Jefferson himself thought about the Bible. What did he think of the New Testament, the gospels and Paul’s letters? Not much, to say the least. In an 1820 letter to William Short, he said:

Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence: and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate therefore the gold from the dross; restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of his doctrines led me to try to sift them apart.

Would Norris like to teach that in public schools? Somehow I doubt it. How about what he believed about the Old Testament? Continuing his conversation with William Short a few months later, he wrote:

Page 1 of 2 | Next page