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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] .
Instead of recreating the debate, it made more sense to contact one of the participants, Sam Haselby, whose recent book ''[https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0199329575/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0199329575&linkCode=as2&tag=dailyh0c-20&linkId=aff5f98989dca21ce3fda12a728b5ddb The Origins of American Religious Nationalism]'' (published by [http://global.oup.com/?cc=us Oxford University Press]) examines how a conflict with Protestantism, in the decades following US independence transformed American national identity . Gordon Wood described his book in the ''New York Review of Books'' as an "impressive and powerfully argued book-that ....it was American Protestantism and not any sort of classical republicanism that was most important in shaping the development of American nationalism." ''The Origins of American Religious Nationalism'' was published in 2015 and will be republished in paperback by OUP in December 2016.
It made sense to get his perspective on the concept of American Religious Nationalism, the broad issues that underpinned the recent Twitter debate, and his understanding of early American Christianity.
Sam Haselby is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life 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 Secular] 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?'''
Initially, I was attracted to the advent of popular American Protestantism through
the literature the Europeanist and South Asianist literature on nationalism and religion and changing class relations. I started researching that and just got drawn deeper and deeper in to what turned out to be a much bigger project. 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.
'''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.
*[[Engineering Victory during the Civil War: Interview with Thomas F. Army, Jr.]]