Joseph Clarke’s interesting/frightening article on “The Creation Museum” in northern Kentucky near Cincinnati is well worth reading, but I must protest once again about innocent Founders being dragged in to get blamed or credited for everything that a given writer likes or dislikes about American culture.
The Creation Museum is an expensive, high-tech send-up of modern scientific thought about natural history, devoted to presenting the text of the Bible as literal scientific fact and instilling visitors with fear and loathing of the post-Enlightenment world. Yet guess who gets named by the article’s author as one of the museum’s intellectual progenitors? Poor Thomas Jefferson, whose liberal religious views and avid interest in Enlightenment science were constantly ridiculed and condemned during his lifetime. Jefferson clipped all the miracles and supernatural references out of the Gospels for nothing, apparently. Here is the offending passage:
But while the Creation Museum undoubtedly reflects these recent trends, moralistic distrust of city life has a rich history in America. When, in 1925, John Scopes was tried for teaching Darwinism to a high school science class in violation of Tennessee law, the case against him was argued by William Jennings Bryan, a luminary of the young fundamentalist movement and a staunch agrarian. In Bryan’s view, urban industrial capitalism was inextricable from the social Darwinist credo of survival of the fittest and the cultural ills to which it gave rise. Before Bryan, Thomas Jefferson argued against Alexander Hamilton that the cold rationality of economic development would lead to social waywardness unless held in check by a thriving agrarian culture: “Corruption of morals…is the mark set upon those, who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers.” Jefferson’s proposed design for the Great Seal of the United States depicted the nation of Israel journeying through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.
Admittedly there is a lot more to the article than this dig at Jefferson, and even the quoted passage is part of Clarke’s on-the-whole rather trenchant effort to link the Creation Museum’s worldview to the American tradition of sentimentally valorizing an imagined, Edenic rural life. But it still seems a little unfair and wrong-headed to cram Jefferson into the intellectual heritage of hard-core Biblical literalism on any grounds. Trying to be both a Jeffersonian and a Fundamentalist was William Jennings Bryan’s damage, not the Sage of Monticello’s.