Mike Kueber's Blog

April 17, 2012

The Jefferson Bible and kindred spirits

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 7:38 pm
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While talking religion with a friend a few days ago, he mentioned the Jefferson Bible.  According to my friend, POTUS-3 had taken the Christian Bible and removed those parts that he believed were unbelievable.  Sounds like the first Cafeteria Catholic.  As someone who doesn’t believe in miracles, I thought that was an interesting concept and made a note to research the concept. 

Then yesterday, another friend posted a comment on my Facebook wall about his non-Christian (agnostic/atheist) friend who was considering marrying a Christian who would raise their children as Christians because he so admired the values taught by Christianity and wanted his children raised in that environment.  That comment prompted me to follow-up on the Jefferson Bible.

I have previously blogged about the religious beliefs of our nation’s Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, and have suggested that most of the leading Founders are more accurately characterized as Deists than Christians and the Jefferson Bible is further evidence of this.    

According to Wikipedia, the Jefferson Bible is also known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is taken from the first four books in the New Testament (gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and it contains “a chronological version of Jesus’ life, distilling his moral teachings, excluding those aspects which appeared to him ‘contrary to reason.’”

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, however, there were two Jefferson Bibles:

  1. The book that the Smithsonian is preparing to put on display is actually one of two Jefferson Bibles. Jefferson produced the first over the course of a few days in 1804. Not long after completing the Louisiana Purchase, he sat down in the White House with two Bibles and one razor, intent on dividing the true words of Jesus from those put into his mouth by “the corruptions of schismatising followers.” The result was “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth“: a severely abridged text (now lost) that, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, consisted entirely of Jesus’ sayings. In this “precious morsel of ethics,” as Jefferson put it, Jesus prayed to God and affirmed the afterlife, but he was not born in a manger and did not die to atone for anyone’s sins.
  2. In 1820, after retiring from public life, Jefferson produced a second scripture by subtraction—the book that is now being restored in D.C. In “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” he again sought to excise passages “of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” This time, however, he arranged his material chronologically rather than topically, and he included both the sayings and actions of Jesus. He also included passages in English, French, Latin and Greek.  To readers familiar with the New Testament, this Jefferson Bible, as it is popularly called, begins and ends abruptly. Rather than opening, as does the Gospel of John, in the beginning with the Word, Jefferson raises his curtain on a political and economic drama: Caesar’s decree that all the world should be taxed. His story concludes with this hybrid verse: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” Between these points, there are no angels, no wise men, and not a hint of the resurrection.  After completing this second micro-testament, Jefferson claimed in a letter to a friend that it demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian. “It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”  That, of course, has been hotly debated from the election of 1800 to today, and Jefferson has been called an infidel, a Deist and more. What is most clear is that he was not a traditional Christian. He unequivocally rejected the Nicene Creed, which has defined orthodoxy for most Christians since 381. And he was contemptuous of the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it “mere Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus phantasm.”  None of that prevented Jefferson from claiming to represent real Christianity, or from dismissing his clerical despisers as “Pseudo-Christians”—imposters peddling a counterfeit faith. Religion is about doing good, he insisted, not abstract theologizing.

A FoxNews.com article by Lauren Green provides some context to Jefferson’s aversion to miracles:

  • Jefferson was very much a product of thinking of the time, known as the Enlightenment,” said Andrew O’Shaughnessy, director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. “And so he was unwilling to accept anything that couldn’t be proved on the basis of evidence. So he was determined to remove what he felt couldn’t be substantiated.”  Jefferson was also a man of reason, says Dr. Peter Onuf, of the University of Virginia. “Miracles would upset the lawful universe Jefferson believed in. If there was going to be enlightenment and therefore the popularity of self-government, there had to be law.”

Thomas Jefferson and I seem to be kindred spirits.

February 6, 2012

The Biblical view of taxes

Filed under: Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 4:42 am
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A conservative, Christian friend recently sent me a link to a blog-posting on the so-called Biblical view of taxes.    The posting discusses a variety of taxes and suggests whether they are consistent with Biblical policy.  In my mind, however, the posting raises an overarching issue of more significance – i.e., what role should religion play in establishing government policy in America? 

Before getting to the overarching issue, I will summarize what the blog-posting said about the Biblical view of taxes:

  1. Taxes are authorized – “Render to Caesar….”
  2. A flat tax is fairer than a progressive tax – tithing is 10% for everyone.
  3. Everyone should pay something – tithing, plus the census tax in Exodus.
  4. No taxes on estates – “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people….”
  5. No taxes on corporations – such taxes increase poverty by reducing jobs.
  6. No taxes on capital gains – such taxes discourage investment, which increases poverty.

The first four points are reasonable, but the last two appear to be based more on economic theory than Biblical concepts.  Furthermore, once you assume that the Bible authorizes taxes to support necessary government functions, then it seems that government should have discretion to determine where in the economy to extract the tax – e.g., taxing sales, personal income, corporate income, capital gains, or estates.

Regarding the overarching issue concerning whether religious doctrines should affect public policy, it has been axiomatic since John Kennedy that presidents don’t take direction from religious leaders.  This axiom has been extended in recent years to allow Catholic Democratic politicians to diverge from the Catholic position against abortion.  But both of the probably presidential candidates – Romney and Obama – have declared that their religious beliefs inform their views on public policy. 

  • President Obama relied on a biblical phrase at the National Prayer Breakfast to justify raising taxes on the wealthy – “For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that, for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.”  Verse 48 of chapter 12 in the Gospel of Luke. 
  • Mitt Romney declared in his 2007 “Faith in America” speech that “I will also offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my Presidency, if I were elected.”  In his speech, he went on to repeat Kennedy’s promise, “I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”

The problem is how do you allow your religion to inform you presidency, yet not put any doctrine above your duties and authorities.  For an excellent discussion of this distinction, see an article titled, “The Enduring Cost of John F. Kennedy’s Compromise,” written by Colleen Carroll Campbell in the Catholic World Report.   According to Campbell, Kennedy’s 1960 speech posited “that religion should be relegated to the private realm and deprived of its meaning-making role in American democracy.”  In Kennedy’s own words:

  • “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
  • “I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.  Whatever issue may come before me as President – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.  And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Incidentally, Campbell suggests that Kennedy’s personal religious beliefs were more Deist than Catholic.

To get a better understanding of what Romney and Obama mean by having their religion inform their public-policy positions, I decided to read their key speeches on the subject.  Mitt Romney’s delivered his “Faith in America” speech on December 6, 2007, at the George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library.  The speech was widely regarded as evoking that of Senator John F. Kennedy’s September 1960 pledge not to allow Catholic doctrine to inform policy because it used some of the same verbiage and phrasing:

  • I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.  Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.  As Governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”
  • “If I am fortunate enough to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest….  A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.”

Near the end of the speech, Romney listed some values that many religions espoused and noted that, “And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency.”

President Obama’s speech was given on February 2, 2012 at the National Prayer Breakfast.  During the speech, he noted that the limits of religion, “It’s absolutely true that meeting these challenges requires sound decision-making, requires smart policies. We know that part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can’t dictate our response to every challenge we face.”  But he went on to declare that the majority of great reformers in America – Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel – “did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it.” 

And then he listed areas of public policy that were informed by not only his Christianity, but also by other religions:

  • “And so when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs -– from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato.”
  • And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.  But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.”
  • “It means maybe that research lab on the cusp of a lifesaving discovery, or the company looking for skilled workers is going to do a little bit better, and we’ll all do better as a consequence. It makes economic sense. But part of that belief comes from my faith in the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper; that as a country, we rise and fall together. I’m not an island. I’m not alone in my success. I succeed because others succeed with me.”
  • “And when I decide to stand up for foreign aid, or prevent atrocities in places like Uganda, or take on issues like human trafficking, it’s not just about strengthening alliances, or promoting democratic values, or projecting American leadership around the world, although it does all those things and it will make us safer and more secure. It’s also about the biblical call to care for the least of these –- for the poor; for those at the margins of our society.”
  • “To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” And for others, it may reflect the Jewish belief that the highest form of charity is to do our part to help others stand on their own.”
  • “Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great — when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year. And they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.”

My impression is that, although President Obama and Mitt Romney talk about their religion informing their public policy, I suspect that neither one will be disposed to defend a position of public policy based on some quote from the Bible.  The Kennedy axiom remains in effect.

June 26, 2011

Aphorism of the Week #1 – a camel through the eye of a needle

Filed under: Aphorism — Mike Kueber @ 4:26 am
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Last week, as I was returning to San Antonio from North Dakota, I listened to several conservative talk shows, including Glenn Beck’s.  A couple of Beck’s shows were focused on Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey.

During those shows, Beck and his sycophants exhibited a strong case of man-love for Christie and relied on two clips to justify their love.  One of the clips showed Christie telling off a teacher who had the audacity to challenge Christie’s public-education cuts while sending his kids to Catholic schools.  Christie smugly told her it was none of her business where his kids went to school, but then went on to answer the question.

The second clip was an anti-Christie commercial from New Jersey educators complaining that Christie was a millionaire and that several of his aides were millionaires.  Beck and his wing-men made fun of the second clip by suggesting that perhaps the teachers would feel Christie was better qualified if he and his aides had not achieved financial success (a la Harry Truman).

Although the Beck ridicule is unquestionably valid, I wonder if the commercial is nevertheless effective because a lot of people think that most rich people don’t deserve their wealth.  Such thinking is consistent with my first aphorism of the week:

  • “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This aphorism is recorded in the synoptic gospels – i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Variations of it can also be found in Judaism (the Babylonian Talmud) and Islam (the Quran).

The saying was a response to a young rich man who had asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied that he should keep the commandments, to which the man stated he had done. Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man became sad and was unwilling to do this.  Jesus then spoke this response, leaving his disciples astonished.

According to Wikipedia, the “eye of a needle” has been interpreted as a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no evidence for the existence of such a gate.

Thus, we are left with two conflicting interpretations of this aphorism – (a) the literal interpretation that the accumulation of wealth conflicts with the biblical value of loving your neighbor like yourself and (b) the modern rationalization that the accumulation of wealth merely creates additional challenges for achieving the kingdom of God.  I’m going with the latter.

May 22, 2010

A Divinely-inspired U.S. Constitution?

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:22 am
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Americans have a healthy, common-sense cynicism about its government.  Nothing is perfect in life except for God. 

Christian are taught that the Bible is perfect, too – i.e., biblical inerrancy/infallibility.  Because they believe the Bible is divinely inspired, Christians study biblical passages and try to glean wisdom that can be applied in a practical way. 

Despite their common-sense cynicism, many Americans, especially conservative Americans, treat the U.S. Constitution as divinely inspired.  They act as if God helped our founders write it, so that if we examine its words closely enough, we will find the answer to a more perfect government. 

I believe we are giving the Constitution more credit than it is due.  Yes, its authors were educated, pragmatic idealists, but there is nothing magical about them or the document that they produced.  The fact that we have amended it 27 times suggests that it was not divinely inspired, especially the part that recognized slavery and authorized voting only by white males.  The fact that other, less-successful countries have drafted constitutions modeled after ours suggests that the people and resources of the U.S. had as much to do with America’s success as the governing document did.

Much of the credit for good governance in the United States should go to the federal courts.  They have done an excellent job through the years in elaborating on and clarifying the meaning of the broad principles established by the U.S. Constitution (all 4,543 words of it).  But there is a danger that the courts are becoming too politicized today.  There shouldn’t be campaigns to interpret the constitution one way or the other.  The judiciary is supposed to be separate from politics, so we should allow judges to do their job without political influence.  Then, if we disagree with the judicial interpretation, we shouldn’t call for the replacement of judges.  Instead we should amend the constitution by the onerous process described in the Constitution – a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and then ratification by three-fourth of the states legislatures. 

Our founding fathers gave Americans a great starting document, but that document is not some mystical/magical formulation that we dare not tinker with.  American progress is due to the character of its people, and those people can determine the kind of government that is needed today as well as a bunch of rich white men from 227 years ago.