Out of Many: An Intern's Take

Title Page, Jefferson's Bible. Case C 4524 .45

Today’s post comes from the Scholl Center’s fantastic summer intern, Maggie Grossman. Maggie will be a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this fall, and this is her second summer working with the Scholl Center. Last summer, Maggie mainly focused on the Scholl Center’s forthcoming Civil War exhibit. This summer, she has contributed to our “Out of Many” program. Here Maggie reflects on insights she had during the program’s weeklong workshop, as well as sources at the Newberry that illustrate them.

When I first heard about the NEH Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges program, “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America,” I started thinking about what sort of instruction I’d had on this topic in my ongoing undergraduate studies. It turns out, none. I remembered something about Puritans in my A.P. US history class, and maybe a mention of a Great Awakening or two, but religion had otherwise not made much of an impact on my undergraduate syllabi. But once I started prepping for the Scholl Center’s seminar, I started seeing religion everywhere in American life. For instance, did you know that in Major League Baseball, the game includes singing of “God Bless America,” but only on Sundays? Or that CNN has a religion blog? It’s called CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories. A recent article: “Would Jesus support Obamacare?” Which brings me to the question that kept coming up over and over again during the weeklong seminar: What is government’s role in religion?

We began the seminar by starting with the source, to the document that made all of this religious pluralism possible: the First Amendment. For those of you who might be a little rusty on your Constitution, here’s the text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I had no idea that a one-sentence piece of legalese had so much to say. First of all, notice that even though freedom of speech has become synonymous with the First Amendment, it’s actually the religion clauses that come first. What also impressed me was the divide between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. People tend to think of the First Amendment as granting this abstract “freedom of religion,” while in reality it’s more nuanced than that. And at last month’s “Out of Many” workshop, two issues kept coming up again and again: what is the government’s role in religion? And how have conceptions of America as a “Christian Nation” shaped that role?

At least one of the Founders, it turns out, thought extensively about the relationship between Christianity, social governance, and rational thought. Thomas Jefferson made a point throughout his life to keep his thoughts on religion absolutely private. But he did leave behind a document that gives us a glimpse of his thoughts on the sacred. He titled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” but you may have heard of it simply as “The Jefferson Bible.” In it, Jefferson edited the four Gospels to take out anything mystical, magical, or inherently irrational. He carefully cut these passages out and repasted them in chronological order into a blank book.

The original, handmade copy of Jefferson’s Bible remains at the Smithsonian, where it was recently restored, digitized, and put on display. The Newberry, however, holds a unique 1904 government printing of the text that includes the Greek, Latin, French, and English translations of the Bible Jefferson used, as well as a foldout map of Palestine and Asia Minor. As the introduction to the Newberry’s edition states, “It is printed in pursuance to the following concurrent resolution adopted by the Fifty-seventh Congress, first session: ‘That there be printed and bound, by photolithographic process, with an introduction of not to exceed twenty-five pages, to be prepared by Dr. Cyrus Adler, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, for the use of Congress, 9,000 copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, as the same appears in the National Museum; 3,000 copies for the use of the Senate and 6,000 copies for the use of the House.’” While not quite the Smithsonian’s original, the photolithographic printing captures Jefferson’s handwriting, as well as the meticulously cut-and-pasted segments. What are the implications of offering this document to Congress? And what does it reveal, whether in the eitghteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries, about the relationship between religion and American life?

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