This wasn't your standard, "traditional" Bible, however. Patton sent copies of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, the so-called "Jefferson Bible," to the politicians. And he has continued to do so in alternate years, including 2005, when he mailed out 50 copies around the time of President Bush's second inauguration.
What is the Jefferson Bible? In 1820, just six years before his death, Thomas Jefferson set about editing the New Testament, physically removing with scissors all verses that pertained to miracles, resurrection, and anything supernatural, and pasting the rest together. What he was left with was, he believed, a purely moral document.
Almost two centuries later, Patton was doing some research in the library at Bellevue University in Nebraska, where he is a professor of economics. On the shelf, he discovered a 1904 edition of Jefferson's work. In that year, Patton later learned, 9,000 copies of the 80-page volume were printed-by Congress itself.
Patton looked into it and found a bit of a mystery. It seems that distributing the Jefferson Bible to new members of Congress every other year was a tradition from 1904 until 1957, when the practice quietly stopped. But in a spirit of entrepreneurship, Patton set about publishing a new edition of the volume, with Jesus' words printed in red for easier reading as well as emphasis. He has sent a total of 753 copies to members of Congress since 1997.
How does Jefferson's endeavor, which eliminates some of the most profound testaments to Christian faith including Jesus' miracles and his resurrection, square with Patton's own conservative theology as a member of the United Church of God?
"I don't take it that he was making a statement of Christian theology," Patton said in an interview. "He wasn't into doctrinal matters. It is a statement of Christian morality." Jefferson, Patton said, was searching for a "pure Christianity" that elevated the moral principles contained in Jesus' life and the parables he told.
"To me, it's Jefferson's effort to show the values upon which our nation was founded," Patton said, values that include a relationship to the "Ten Commandments, our neighbor, and God."
Patton's effort has set him back at least $1,500 so far, he says, though the book is sold at the Jefferson Memorial Bookstore in Washington, D.C. He has never had any copies returned to him after he has mailed them, and he says that with each mailing come several appreciative letters, some in the personal handwriting of the politicians. Former Senators John Glenn (D-OH) and John Ashcroft (R-MO) and Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) have responded favorably to the Bible, Patton reports.
Upon receiving his, Rep. Ernest J. Istook, Jr. (R-OK) wrote to Patton, "The moral truths in `The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth' can serve as a compass and touchstone to all Americans. This book is a wonderful reminder that, just as Thomas Jefferson professed, our liberties are a gift from God."
Not everyone is so positive about the Jefferson Bible. Ben Witherington III, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, KY, says that the Jefferson Bible "makes Jesus into a talking head."
Witherington, who agreed with Patton that Jefferson's intent was to cull a moral code from Christianity, nonetheless said that such a document, devoid of Jesus' miraculous and supernatural acts, is "not useful" to politicians or anyone.
The context of Jesus' ethics, noted Witherington, was theological. "It's not an ethic that stands on its own. It presupposes that God is working in history, and that God is going to rectify matters" like injustice. "When you extract the ethics from the theology," he added, "it has no foundation."
Patton, meanwhile, will continue distributing the books in the belief that one Founding Father's version of the Bible still belongs in the halls of Congress today.