Always in alliance with despots against liberty

David Barton’s Jefferson

By Martin E. Marty, April 30, 2012


Our premier historian of late colonial and early republican America, Gordon Wood, while reviewing a book on Roger Williams warms up readers with references to Thomas Jefferson. “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

If you wanted to promote the idea of “a Christian America,” one which would privilege one religion, a version of Christianity, and de-privilege all others, and if you want to get back to roots and origins, the last of the “founding fathers” on whom you’d concentrate would be Jefferson. Yet the most ardent public and pop advocate of privilege and virtual establishment, David Barton, cites Jefferson for Bartonian positions which are directly opposite of Jefferson’s. Never heard of David Barton? Most of the historians you would ever meet never heard of him, and if you told them about him and his positions, they would yawn or rage about listing him among those who deal honestly with Jefferson.

Sightings does not over-do ad hominem and sneering references, so we leave to others all the disdaining that Barton so richly merits. Do note, however, that he has invented a case and product which serve his viewpoint and draw him enormous followings among “conservative” factions which oppose separation of church and state in most cases except those they choose. Listen to Mike Huckabee or Glenn Beck or rightist cable TV and you will find Barton showing up everywhere.

His favorite founder seems to be Jefferson, of all people. How does he work his way around to the prime builder of “a wall of separation between church and state,” in the metaphor that would not be my favorite. Sample: Thomas Jefferson, razor in hand snipped all supernatural references out of his copies of the Gospels (in the four languages he read in White House evenings), to keep Jesus as a pure ethical humanist. This spring Barton is publishing The Jefferson Lies, which most historians would title Barton’s Lies about Jefferson. Astonishingly, he twists a slight reference to Jefferson’s book on Jesus and turns it into a tract which, Barton says, Jefferson would use in order to convert the Indians to Christianity. Reviewer Craig Ferhman in the Los Angeles Times found all that Barton found to be “outrageous fabrication.” On TV, Barton even said, with no evidence, that Jefferson gave a copy of his Jesus book to a missionary, to use “as you evangelize the Indians.” Had the Indians been converted with that text, their heirs would have had no place to go but to what became the humanist wing of the Unitarian-Universalist church.

Why does any of this matter? One, basic honesty is at issue; do American religionists need to invent such stories in order to prevail? Two, what if they did prevail? Most of the founders thought that religion was most honest and compelling when its leaders and gatherings did not depend upon lies about the state and, of course, upon the state itself. “Separation of church and state” is admittedly a complex issue, dealing as it does with inevitable conflict and messiness in a free and lively republic. May debates over it go on, but with honest references to Jefferson and his colleagues and not on the grounds David Barton proposes.


Gordon S. Wood, “Radical, Pure, Roger Williams,” New York Review of Books, May 10, 2012.

People for the American Way, “David Barton’s ‘Outrageous Fabrication’ about Thomas Jefferson,” Right Wing Watch, January 9, 2012. or

Illustration of Jefferson by ~funkwood

Related Posts

Dystopian drug-­addled nightmare state The Book of Mitt By Alex Pareene, Sunday, May  6, 2012 08:00 AM CDT ... “The precipitous mountain pass that led the pioneers down into the Sal...
While the fields go fallow Palestinian Christians Against the Occupation By Philip Farah, 05/ 1/2012  6:29 am ... In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Israeli ...
The third option Confessions of a Christian Skeptic By Joe Boyd, 08/08/2013 11:52 am   I grew up deeply entrenched in Evangelicalism. So much so, that I ma...
Village voices The following is in response to a guest editorial by , in today's "In my opinion" section of the Sentinel Record.  The full text of his "Without doubt...
Last remnants of modern-day colonialism Excuse Me, But Israel Has No Right To Exist By Sharmine Narwani, Thu, 2012-05-17 21:46 ... The phrase “right to exist” entered my consciousness...
Exterminist rhetoric How Christian fundamentalists plan to teach genocide to schoolchildren By Katherine Stewart, Wednesday 30 May 2012 10.15 EDT ... The Bible ha...
What happens Hiroshima's Lessons: The Air Force, Just War and Nuclear Weapons By Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, 8/7/11 12:21 AM ET ... Faced with secular activi...
A faithful man The Christian Faith of Senator Mark Hatfield By Rev. Chuck Currie, 8/8/11 04:37 PM ET ... The United States of America lost an incredible polit...
Disgusted and amazed Osama Bin Laden anniversary: Torture apologists try again to justify the unjustifiable By Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, 12:23 PM ET, 04/30/2012 ......
Catholic Church’s best ambassador After Vatican’s rebuke of nuns, time to hear Mary’s voice By Lisa Miller, April 26, 2012 ... Imagine the fury of the men of Galilee when a youn...

Permanent link to this article:

1 comment

  1. From the beginning of Gordon Wood’s “Radical, Pure, Roger Williams” in the New Your Review of Books (the entire article is behind a pay wall):

    Radical, Pure, Roger Williams

    By Gordon S. Wood, May 10, 2012

    Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty
    by John M. Barry
    Viking, 464 pp., $35.00

    It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the “priestcraft” were always in alliance with despots against liberty. “To effect this,” he said—privately of course, not publicly—“they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man, into mystery and jargon unintelligible to all mankind and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.”

    The Trinity was nothing but “Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus…so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it.” Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it. It was thus no great task for him to urge, as he did in 1802, the building of “a wall of separation between church and state.” As he provocatively declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he was not injured by his neighbor’s believing in twenty gods or no god at all. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    But can one be devoutly and deeply religious and still believe in the separation of church and state? Many people throughout the world, and especially Muslims, would likely say “no.” If religion and the worship of God are truly important, indeed, the most important things in the world, then the state, they say, must be involved. The conclusion seems obvious to such believers: since the spread of atheism does in fact injure them, the government must protect and promote religion and the belief in God.

    What if, however, there is the possibility of being extremely religious and yet at the same time believing zealously in the separation of church and state? Can those who are exceedingly pious accept the idea that the government has no role whatever in religious matters; indeed, accept the idea that government is ultimately the enemy of religion and thus a wall of separation is necessary to protect religion from the state?

    That was the conclusion of Roger Williams, who was one of the most pious and provocative Puritans in the English-speaking world of the seventeenth century, a world full of pious and provocative Puritans. John M. Barry, one of the most talented of the distinguished nonacademic historians writing today, believes that Williams has taken on a new relevance for Americans presently confused about the division between church and state. Although Barry’s title seems exaggerated—Williams by himself scarcely created the American soul—he has written one of best biographies of Williams that we have. And that’s saying something, since Williams is surely the most written about figure in seventeenth-century America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.