Religion and the Founding: Part I of Probably Many

A couple of days ago there was a Twitter debate between historians Sam Haselby and Annette Gordon-Reed over Thomas Jefferson’s “Christianity.” Haselby wrote a great book on the origins of American religious nationalism, which I reviewed in William and Mary Quarterly, and recently wrote a provocative essay on the secularism of the American founding. Gordon-Reed, one of the masters of the historian’s craft, recently co-authored a new intellectual biography of Jefferson. I recommend the whole exchange, which is storified here. Roy Rogers also posted an important contribution to the dialogue at The Junto on the deeply religious circumstances of Virginia’s battle for religious liberty, arguing that it was far from secular. I strongly recommend reading that essay, too. And, of course, people interested in this topic should be familiar with John Fea’s excellent work.

I just want to add a few thoughts on the issue of whether Jefferson should be categorized as a “Christian.” (Coincidentally, I’ve been struggling with this type of question given my work on Theodore Parker, who also insisted on the identity even while being stripped of the title by competing religionists.)

I totally understand the desire to not cast Jefferson as a Christian. Most obviously, he held radically unorthodox beliefs, which included stripping Christ of divine salvific power and the scriptures of infallible authority. He also railed against Christian ministers in very colorful and biting language. He was far from mainstream Christianity. Further, historians are often quick to debunk the silly and juvenile arguments, pedaled by faux-historians like David Barton, that Jefferson was a proto-Evangelical and that America was founded as a Christian nation. This is all important.

But historians should also recognize that Jefferson refused to recuse the title of “Christian” himself. As Reed and Onuf’s book argued, along with James Kloppenberg’s new tome on the birth of American democracy, Jefferson believed America would become a bastion of a new rational Christianity. As I discuss with my Age of Jefferson students, Jefferson believed that the separation of Church and State would save religion as much as it did government. He believed that just as Britain had corrupted notions of freedom, so too did ministers corrupt the true idea of Christianity. I also recommend the first chapter of Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus, which posits Jefferson as the father of a particular strain of American Christian belief.

But more than just the historical argument, I worry that sometimes historians forfeit the title of “Christian” to Evangelicals like Barton.  “Christianity” was never a consistent nor coherent theology at any point in American history, as it meant a myriad of different things in a vibrant marketplace of belief. By acquiescing the title to fundamentalist evangelicals we both mask the dynamic nature of America’s religious tradition as well as overlook the influence of Protestant notions of dissent, freedom, and justice on our democratic structure. I refuse to accept a limited definition of “Christianity” propagated by those who wish to recast the Founding in the image of the Religious Right.

I think the correct way to respond to the David Bartons of the world is not to argue the founding was a “secular” moment, or even that America was anything but a Christian nation, but rather to problematize what “Christianity” means in the first place.

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