The 60th annual National Prayer Breakfast will take place Feb. 2 here in Washington, D.C.
This event is privately sponsored by a shadowy fundamentalist Christian group called “The Family” (also known as the Fellowship Foundation). You might remember them from a few years ago, when a nasty sex scandal erupted over their infamous “C Street House” and the rowdy escapades of some of its residents.
Even though it’s privately sponsored, the Prayer Breakfast is still annoying. The event has all the trappings of an official governmental worship service, with the president, members of Congress and other dignitaries gathering in a way that appears to merge religion and state. It may not technically violate the First Amendment, but it certainly tramples on the church-state separationist spirit that infuses the Constitution.
This year’s invitation, for example, is festooned with quotes from presidents lauding the role of the Bible in public life.
Among those quoted is Thomas Jefferson.
“In extracting the pure principles which Jesus taught,” the Jefferson quote says, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled…. there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
If you read the quote without knowing its origins, it looks like Jefferson is praising the teachings of Jesus. And in the context of the prayer breakfast program, there is the implication that these teachings should be integrated into government policy.
Jefferson was praising Jesus – sort of. He was praising his personal interpretation of Jesus. And that Jesus is one the Family and its Religious Right allies would never acknowledge or accept.
On Oct. 13, 1813, Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter to his friend John Adams, outlining his latest project. It involved cutting up copies of the New Testament and tossing all of the stuff about Jesus that Jefferson did not accept – mainly claims of his divinity and the miracles.
“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught,” Jefferson wrote, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Jefferson went on to write, “I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.”
The Prayer Breakfast invitation – currently circulating on Capitol Hill -- thus selectively edits Jefferson’s passage to remove his criticism of greedy, power-hungry clergy and cover up his Bible-cutting project.
So, a letter Jefferson wrote specifically to express his disagreement with the theology of ultra-conservative Christians has been mutilated and pressed into service by ultra-conservative Christians to promote their theocratic agenda – an agenda Jefferson would never have supported. (This is the man, after all, who refused to issue official prayer proclamations while in office.)
But here’s the good news: These lies about Jefferson are easily debunked. Jefferson worked on his edit of the Bible for several years. The subsequent volume, which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” was intended for his private study, but thankfully it survived Jefferson’s death in 1826 and has come down to us. It now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, archivists at the National Museum of American History have restored this remarkable document, and it is currently on display.
The book has been reprinted and is available to anyone who wants to read it. Jefferson’s correspondence with Adams and others is also available. Anyone who wants the truth can easily find it: Jefferson clashed with the Religious Right ministers of his day and strongly rejected their views.
As I said, the National Prayer Breakfast is annoying. I wish our national leaders would quit attending it. And I wish the group sponsoring it would quit trying to claim Thomas Jefferson as an ally. He doesn’t agree with them. He’s on our side.