America’s history with prophetic pronouncements includes not only apocalyptic doom. Think Thomas Jefferson. Two of my favorite places in the DC area are the Jefferson Memorial, which perhaps could be called the temple of liberal, enlightened reason, and Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Whenever we are in DC, if we get the chance, I stand in the Memorial and read the great lines of Jefferson — and yet I come away thinking this man represents a vision completely contrary to generous orthodoxy. In Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization we find a chp on Jefferson’s vision … and it begins with this unfulfilled wish dream:
Where is our hope? Do we hope in progress? Do we hope in an apocalyptic act of God to render the world, suddenly and finally, put to right? Do we put hope in our efforts? in God? in God who empowers us to work for justice and peace now? Or, like Jefferson, is our hope in reason? (This chp has given me a reason to be intentional about discerning how our politicians and leaders envision the future etc.)
In 1822 Jefferson wrote: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian” (35). He dreamed of the day when religion would be a religion of reason instead of one based on faith. And, at the heart of Jefferson’s radically consistent liberal vision was a theory of historical progress that included the discovery — by the Enlightenment — of the folly of superstition and the goodness of humans. But humans had to protect freedom and work for the separation of church and State (author’s terms). In contrast to others, Jefferson did not believe in the universal, innate, inexorable laws of progress but instead in the need for humans to work at freedom and reason for that progress to occur.
In the USA, the historical Jesus begins with Jefferson who considered himself a true follower of the real Jesus — the human, excellent Jesus. (By the way, the author of this chp — Johann Neem — confuses “Immaculate Conception” [something about Mary’s own conception] and the “virginal conception” [something about Jesus’ conception].) Jefferson believed in the pure morals of Jesus and reason would lead to the elimination of superstitious doctrines. The key was the “wall of separation” (41). His fear: the rising surge of American evangelicals.
Key, too, was empowerment of the people instead of empowering clerics and politicians. Education would empower the people. But it must be a secular university: so the founding of the University of Virginia. It would promote a religion of peace, reason and morality.
“I have sworn on the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” (41).
But Jefferson was wrong: what followed was the Second Great Awakening and the rise in Boston, at Park Street Church, of Lyman Beecher. His aim: to dismantle Unitarianism. He was a prophet of godlessness. He, too, believed in empowering people and his form of doing so was voluntary (evangelical) action groups.