Déjà Vu?

The election was scarcely over before some Christians began interpreting the results as a huge disaster for our country. One prominent Presbyterian lamented: "Nothing short of fatal experience will open the Eyes of the deluded Multitudes." A Christian college president even suggested it may be time to secede from the Union. But if you thought these observers were lamenting President Clinton's victory, you're wrong. These mournful dirges were reactions to President Thomas Jefferson's victory, nearly 200 years ago. That long-ago election may serve as a cautionary tale for Christians today not to be overconfident in predicting the outcome of political events. The presidential campaign of 1800, like its counterpart in 1996, took place at a time when cultural anxiety was precariously high. America was expanding westward at an unprecedented rate, away from the civilized society of the settled East Coast. The general assembly of the Presbyterian Church raised the specter of "national calamities" stemming from "a general defection from God, and corruption of the public . . . morals." Several Christian leaders--including the presidents of Yale and Princeton--saw the election of 1800 in apocalyptic terms. They viewed Thomas Jefferson as an infidel, an atheist, and an enemy of Christianity. And they had some justification for their beliefs: Jefferson was a deist who denied many orthodox Christian doctrines. And he had led the fight to disestablish the Anglican Church in Virginia--a radical step at the time. The disestablishment of a state church fed public anxiety and appeared to suggest that Jefferson opposed the role of religion in public life. But the greatest concern of Jefferson's opponents involved the new president's admiration for the French Revolution--an admiration that never wavered even when the revolutionaries introduced the guillotine and embraced bloody tyranny. Some Christians feared Jefferson would bring the atheism that fed the French Revolution into the White House. A Presbyterian clergyman, John Mitchell Mason, warned that the election of 1800 would decide not only a question of politics but "of national regard or disregard to the religion of Jesus Christ." Is this the same Jefferson held up as a hero of our country in elementary classrooms today? We hardly recognize him. As Mark Noll points out in One Nation Under God?, Jefferson's administration did not produce the disasters Christian leaders had predicted. For example, President Jefferson was scrupulous in personal affairs. He demonstrated integrity with finances and those with whom he worked. His policies in general supported the moral order of society, and he resisted efforts to expand federal power. Most strikingly, Jefferson revealed a Christian respect for life in his reluctance to commit the country to war despite bitter conflicts with Britain and France. What does the election of 1800 teach us today? Simply this: We need to resist the temptation to interpret any political event in apocalyptic terms. God can work through politicians even when their worldview appears hostile to Christian principles. Over the next few pages I'll be talking more about American elections, past and present. I hope you'll read the entire series as we learn to put politics in perspective.


Chuck Colson


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