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'''In your twitter debate with Annette Gordon-Reed, you two disagreed over whether Jefferson could be defined as a Christian. You both seemed to approach this question from different angles. Her research shows that Jefferson sincerely believed that he was a Christian but you clearly don’t think that Jefferson’s religious beliefs make him a Christian unless you redefine the term. Essentially, Professor Gordon-Reed stated that she was “not comfortable with judging other people’s faith.” Is that something historians should do? When is it appropriate to judge the nature and character of someone's religious faith?'''
It’s not a matter of judging other people’s faith. It’s a matter of understanding. For sure, in history many people’s ideas and actions in regard to religion remain at best opaque to scholars. That’s not the case with Thomas Jefferson. There are a number of ways to look at the question of if Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. First, let’s look at it politically. In the few instances in which he supported particular religious groups, the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, for example, it was out of a combination of secular principle and opportunity to hurt political opponents. He spent a long life trying to reduce the role of Christianity in government, in education, in intellectual and social life.
[[File:Thomas_Jefferson_1786_by_Mather_Brown.jpeg|thumbnail|275px|Thomas Jefferson in 1786]]
Second, let’s look at it intellectually. Intellectually, his affinity was with philosophy, anti-Christian Enlightenment philosophy, not theology. He rejected core tenets of Christian theology, and composed a book to take everything supernatural out of religion. As a rule, I don’t think historians should use theological criteria for understanding if someone was a Christian, because then once you start making theological judgments you sort of leave history. That said, if a historian were to use a theological measure, rejecting the divinity of Jesus and all supernatural elements of the religion would not be bad grounds for exclusion.
John Fea calls Jefferson not a Christian, but a follower of Jesus. There’s an old saying that sometimes the truth is a long road from the facts. It’s a fact that Jefferson was a follower of Jesus. But it’s misleading to call him that precisely because of what happened when Fea did. Gordon-Reed said “Yes, Jesus the Redeemer!” And, if we’re to believe the Christians, there’s two whole words of difference between that and “Yes, Jesus the secular ethicist!”
Finally, another interesting part of the discussion centered on whether Jefferson wanted the United States to be a Christian nation. I’m not quite sure what that means. Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed state that Jefferson made those statements. What do you think Jefferson might have meant by those statements? What would a Jeffersonian Christian nation have looked like?
For Jefferson it was pretty simple. Jefferson meant the United States would be, and should be, Unitarian. It was quixotic then too.