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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
ba 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/022614531X/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=dailyh0c-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=022614531X&linkId=b9a8926764a9a22b56e58c3b8e0a5618 The Origins of American Religious Nationalism]'' published by [http://global.oup.com/?cc=us Oxford University Press] examines the the intersection of politics, national identity and Christianity. ''The Origins of American Religious Nationalism'' was published in 2015 and will be republished in paperback in December 2016. It made sense to get his perspective 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 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.
'''Why were you attracted to this field?'''
Initially, I 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
it Calvinist roots? How did most American Christians identify themselves?'''
I’m not sure how much it means to say that American Christianity at the end of the 18th century had Calvinist roots. Religion as lived by people often has little to do with theological movements. American Christianity at the end of the 18th century is, generally speaking, Reformed Protestant and anti-Catholic. That’s a pretty big tent.
Secularism as a theological development, the secular as a philosophical idea, and secularization as a political project are related but distinct things. Neither the theological development nor the philosophical idea of the secular is uniquely American. The French revolutionary model of secularization, which follows the secular’s American moment, is more radical and influential. So none of them are uniquely American.
Nonetheless, secularization takes historic step forward in late 18th century Virginia, for interesting reasons. American secularism belongs firmly within the bequest of the Virginia Enlightenment. It’s a bequest that includes American slavery and American racism, the US Constitution, and the country’s first and last dynasty of Presidents. Secularism came out of
that that enduring legacy. But it was a fanciful vision, politically, and it faltered because it was never popular in principle and its political requirements were directly counter to those of slavery.
'''Your recent book The Origins of American Religious Nationalism argues that the conflict within American Protestantism ultimately helped create a “religious nationalism.” What is "religious nationalism?”'''
It’s the floor. Liberals and conservatives, leftists and reactionaries, stand on it. In some ways it is necessary. The US is a big and odd and unnatural and discordant nation. How would Americans talk to each other without standing on the founding fathers? It also, I think, limits debate and inhibits thought.
'''Recently, there has been a political debate about how religious the founding fathers were and whether the United States was founded as an explicitly “Christian” nation. Today, the founding documents of the United States are viewed by some as almost quasi-religious documents. On the other hand, you have argued that the United States was “founded by visionary secularists.” What accounts for these divergent views of our founding?
Due the different religious beliefs of the founders is the question even answerable?'''
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
are not Christians. Then- as now- most Christians in the world are Catholic. It makes no sense to call a country hostile to most of the world’s Christians a “Christian nation.”
Nor it is possible to just devolve to “Protestant nation.” The US was not founded as a Protestant nation in any meaningful sense. Americanists tend to forget that the House of Hanover was the sword and shield of Protestantism in a largely Catholic world. The last thing anyone driven by a desire to form a Protestant nation would do is secede from Great Britain. Religion was just not a primary or secondary motive for American independence or the US national founding.
'''Recently there was a debate on twitter between yourself, John Fea, and Annette Gordon-Reed Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. There was fairly big divide. The biggest question centered around whether or not he was a Christian. What were Thomas Jefferson’s beliefs?'''
Jefferson said he was a sect by himself. He exaggerated. He was deist. His views were those conventional to the deism relatively popular among intellectuals of his era and class. The watchmaker God. No miracles. Jesus is a moral exemplar but not Christ,
Not the son of God. No divine revelation. No resurrection. Interested in science, natural history, and philosophy as substitutes and superior alternatives to religion and theology. He praised the English dissident and scientist Joseph Priestley’s books on Christianity, which were attacks on divine revelation and the doctrine of the trinity and rambling, vituperative manifestos for science and rationalism.
'''Considering Jefferson’s religious beliefs
- would those have been described as Christian by people during his lifetime or now? Was there a lot of flexibility about what made someone a Christian?'''
There was a great deal of flexibility. And yet still Jefferson did not come close to qualifying.
'''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?'''
Annette Gordon-Reed maintained that Jefferson was a Christian because he once referred to himself as “a primitive Christian.” Any questioning of that self-description, she suggested, was an arrogating impropriety. That’s a strange position for a historian to take. Jefferson also said-twice that I know of- that God was against slavery. Does she think he was an abolitionist?
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.
Finally, let’s look at the matter historically. Historically, Christianity is just what Christians say and do. Nothing more, nothing less. Historically, it’s really up to one’s contemporaries, to what Christians of that time did and said, and they were sure Jefferson was not one of them. Whether by historical, intellectual, or political criteria, Jefferson cannot be called a Christian.
Incidentally, the term Gordon-Reed used to support her case- “primitive Christian”- is kind of interesting. She said he was a Christian because he once referred to himself as a “primitive Christian.” Early modern intellectuals, particularly those from a Protestant tradition, sometimes used that term to refer to the time before the Council of Nicea in the 4th century. In their idealized view, that is when Christianity was corrupted. “Primitive Christian” was a way of laying claim to the purported heart or spirit of the Christian message, while distancing oneself from actual churches, first the Vatican but others too. It was all based on what we now know was a very inaccurate view of early Christianity. Late antique or early Christianity was actually a tumultuous, wild thing but Jefferson and his generation didn’t think that. They thought “primitive Christianity” was pure and harmonious and simple.
In any event, by using the term “primitive Christian” in 1819, Jefferson is taking a weapon that Protestant intellectuals forged to delegitimize Catholicism and turning it against the Protestants. It’s in a way typical Jefferson. Give up nothing. But it is close to the opposite of the simple, definitive statement of devotion or identification that Gordon-Reed claimed. In citing that term, she and Onuf are like prosecuting attorneys unwittingly introducing exculpatory evidence.
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.