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How a Christian Congress embraced Jefferson’s ‘atheistical’ library

Two centuries ago, a religiously uniform legislature planted the seed for a wide-ranging Library of Congress

Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press

The Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson, shown at the Library of Congress.

By Peter Manseau Globe Correspondent 

As the 114th Congress convened for the first time earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a report noting that it was the most ethnically diverse in history: 17 percent of the House and Senate is now nonwhite. But another Pew report found that by a different metric, Congress is almost shockingly united. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are overwhelmingly Christian, with more than 90 percent of each belonging to a church.

In these rancorous days, it’s tempting to look for a glimmer of hope in the possibility that so many lawmakers might have at least one thing in common. Yet in their near uniformity of belief, members of Congress do not reflect the current composition of a nation in which one in five claim no religious affiliation. To be sure, there is great variety among those who call themselves Christians, but it is nonetheless worrisome to some that so many share the tenets of a single faith: a hint that the broader and more varied concerns of the American public are incompletely represented by our elected officials.

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The Pew report on religion, however, came not only at the start of a new legislative session, but during a month that marks the 200th anniversary of the most colorful debate on the value of diverse religious opinions ever heard in the US Legislature—and the outcome of that debate should be reassuring to doubters. The occasion was a House vote on a bill allowing Congress to procure Thomas Jefferson’s library at Monticello as a replacement for the original collection destroyed when the British burned Washington in the waning days of the War of 1812.

This tense moment in 1815 is a reminder that, as a country, we have been far more spiritually diverse than we often recognize. It also sheds light on the ways the United States has been able to generate great and broad-based institutions even when those in charge are, on the face of it, more similar than the citizens they represent. Ultimately, what happened would establish our expansive modern Library of Congress—and offer an example worth remembering amid the apparent religious uniformity of our elected federal government today.

At its founding, the Library of Congress was primarily a reference collection intended for the use of Congress itself. Proposing volumes for its shelves in an 1802 letter, President Jefferson included only titles related to “those branches of science which belong to the deliberations of the members as statesmen.” When the British General Robert Ross set fire to the White House, the Capitol, and other public buildings in August 1814, 3,000 such books went up in smoke.

Five years out of office and retired to Monticello, Jefferson heard of the library’s destruction and decided to act. “I learn from the newspapers that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts,” he wrote in a letter submitted to members of Congress. Suspecting they would like to rebuild the collection but might find it difficult during wartime, he proposed the country buy his own carefully curated personal library as a replacement.

When Jefferson first offered to make his books available, the most vexing matter to some critics was the expense. At a price determined by a Georgetown bookseller of $23,950 for 6,487 books (in today’s dollars, an average price of more than $50 each), the library was no bargain. As the debate about the purchase dragged on for months in the press and through a vote in the Senate, however, this concern was eclipsed by another one: the supposedly “atheistical” character of the former president’s book collection.

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Far from strictly atheist, Jefferson’s books included texts from a number of religious traditions. He owned a score of Bibles, a Koran, a history of “heathen gods,” and works by Deist philosophers—and that was precisely the problem. Such heterodox titles reflected his opinion that religion should be a personal affair, guided by curiosity and reason.

The vitriol Jefferson’s interests inspired, however, demonstrated how sensitive such a perspective has always been in the United States. In a nation often at odds over the question of how porous the wall of separation between church and state should be, the public dimension of private belief was and remains a reliable source of controversy. Though only dozens of the more than 6,000 books dealt with religion, they were seen as a window into a dangerously pluralistic worldview.

By the time the bill came up for a vote in the House on Jan. 26, 1815, Jefferson’s critics had stirred themselves to a witch hunt. The Federalist representative Cyrus King of Massachusetts argued that the character of the man who assembled the library, and the place where he had acquired much of it—France—was evidence enough that the collection contained “many books of irreligious and immoral tendency.” Attempting to prevent “a general dissemination of this infidel philosophy,” King declared that the books would be better off burned than bought with public funds.

Other members of Congress found this talk of book burning too much to take. Representative James Fisk of Vermont, a Democratic-Republican like Jefferson, reminded his fellow congressmen that King came from a state once known for hanging witches, and wondered pointedly whether that practice might also be reintroduced. Representative Robert Wright of Maryland accused King of wanting to start an Inquisition. To this charge, King replied that he had no such intention—at least not while his party was in the minority.

Even then, party politics ruled the day. With the Democratic-Republicans holding a majority in both houses, King’s Federalists saw the purchase of the library as an abuse of power directly enriching a political rival. As extreme as that position might seem from a distance of centuries, 47 percent of the House agreed with King. In the end, the bill passed, but barely.

President James Madison approved the act of Congress purchasing Jefferson’s library on Jan. 30, 1815, and word reached Monticello in early February. By May of that year, 10 wagons had hauled the books to the national capital, providing a model for the enormously wide-ranging collection the Library of Congress would become. True to Jefferson’s sense that “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” it today represents a proudly diverse American heritage of knowledge, interest, and belief.

Two hundred years on, the dispute over Jefferson’s library provides an unexpected view into the ways religion can transform even noncontroversial subjects into bitter culture wars. Today, we pay lip service to the idea that the personal beliefs of elected representatives should not matter. But the range of contentious contemporary issues informed by faith—from health care to terrorism, same-sex marriage to corporate personhood—suggests that religious diversity may have as many implications for the 114th Congress as it did for the 13th.

Yet the fact that the nearly all-encompassing Library of Congress has roots in a debate about “infidel philosophy” is not merely a reminder that politicized religious conflicts have been with us from the beginning. It also suggests that even elected bodies whose range of belief is narrower than the nation’s as a whole can give rise to institutions that support all of us.

Varied though they were, the religious perspectives found in Jefferson’s library barely scratched the surface of the beliefs at large in the young United States. Already, the country beyond the Capitol was home to many others: small Jewish communities growing in most cities, adherents of Islam and African religions practicing their faith in secret on slave plantations, Native American movements keeping traditional beliefs alive even as the dominant faith was forced upon them.

With no participation in the crafting of laws under which they lived, religious minorities exerted influence in ways difficult to measure except through the growing eclecticism of certain of our historical leaders. Had anyone prepared a report on the religious affiliations of politicians in 1815, the church-going owner of the library full of “infidel philosophy” would have been counted as a Christian himself. But Jefferson was a Christian shaped by the religious differences around him.

Many of today’s lawmakers likewise may be more spiritually diverse than any mere accounting can describe. Among the hundreds of members of Congress sworn into office with their hands on a Bible was a Buddhist—Georgia Representative Hank Johnson—who used the Christian text as a nod to tradition rather than a statement of belief. When the then-mayor of Newark (and now senator) Cory Booker announced his interest in seeking higher office in 2012, this Baptist from New Jersey did so beside a stack of books that would have been right at home at Monticello: a New Testament, a Hebrew Bible, a Koran, and a Bhagavad Gita. And in 2007, the first Muslim member of Congress, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, took his oath of office using Jefferson’s own copy of the “Alcoran of Mohammed,” part of that collection of books trucked from Charlottesville to Washington 192 years before.

Whether it takes the form of the few representatives who hold faiths outside Christianity or Christians with surprisingly broad perspectives, there is reason to believe that there is more variation in our religiously united Congress than there may seem. And, even with the shadow of spiritual strife so often visible in both our present and our past, if religious disagreement is the fate of the nation, that might not be a bad thing.

In matters of faith, Jefferson argued, “uniformity of opinion” was neither desirable nor attainable, for “difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.” In his day and ours, the tension between competing beliefs is not a problem to be solved, but an ongoing negotiation. One day, a greater variety of professed beliefs, among those representing a nation of all faiths and no faith, may more clearly show the advantages of such difference of opinion within government as well.

Peter Manseau is the author, most recently, of “One Nation Under Gods: A New American History.”

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