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SamHaselby. jpg|thumbnail| 300px| Sam Haselby]] Recently on Twitter, a debate broke out between Annette Gordon-Reed, Sam Haselby, and John Fea on the nature of Thomas Jefferson' s religious beliefs. The debate centered on the questions of whether or not Thomas Jefferson could be described a Christian and wanted the United States to be a Christian nation. Ultimately, the debate could not overcome the 140 character limitations of Twitter. Fortunately, Michael Hattem preserved that debate at [https://storify.com/michaelhattem/jefferson-christianity-and-twitter Jefferson, Christianity, and Twitter] .
Sam Haselby is a visiting
assistant professor of history at Columbia University and the editor of [https://aeon.co/ Aeon magazine]. He recently published an article for Aeon entitled [https://aeon.co/essays/why-did-the-secular-ambitions-of-the-early-united-states-fail American Secularism] explaining why the secular movement failed soon after the founding of the United States.
Here is our interview.
OriginsAmericanReligiousNationalism. png|thumbnail| 250px| ''The Origins of American Religious Nationalism'']]
'''What type of historian are you?'''
'''Why were you attracted to this field?'''
had a certain disdain for Christianity, and an interest in how people became nationalists. I think I gained a sympathetic understanding of why they do, but the book is really an anti-nationalist book and in the course of research I acquired a certain respect for the religionists--though I’m constitutionally incapable on that front . The project opened a lot of doors for me, intellectually, and most of them back into the early modern or medieval or late antique period, or out to other parts of the world. Religion and politics is a good thing to be interested in if you are curious about the world, because every society, every time and place, has them.
'''What was the nature of the American Christianity at the end of the 18th Century? Had it completely shifted from its Calvinist roots? How did most American Christians identify themselves?'''
There is no divergence. I have argued that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were visionary secularists and that they launched what was a historic, if ultimately faltering, and kind of feeble secularization project. That is true. Other notable Americans of the revolutionary era were acutely Protestant. Patrick Henry and John Jay, for example. They were deeply religious and wanted the US to be so too. So was Timothy Dwight. So were many, many others of the revolutionary generation. Most people probably wanted the US to be a devout country. But there was no agreement on what that meant. The range of positions was broad, very broad.
It is crucial however to understand that “Christian nation” has always been a term of bigotry and exclusion. First, when Americans of the 18th and 19th century used the term they were saying Catholics were not Christians. Then--as now--most Christians in the world were Catholic. It makes no sense to call a country hostile to most of the world’s Christians a “Christian nation.”
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.
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.
*[[Engineering Victory during the Civil War: Interview with Thomas F. Army, Jr.]]