Peter Onuf Kicks the “Christian America” Hornet’s Nest

Most BLessedOn April 21, 2016, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf appeared at the Free Library of Philadelphia to talk about their new book , Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.  It is a great book.  One of the best books on Jefferson I have ever read.  (If you want to learn more check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and Onuf at The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast–Episode 8).

During the conversation in Philadelphia, the authors spend some time talking about Jefferson’s religion.  You can watch the video here. The discussion of religion begins at about the 29:00 minute mark. (C-SPAN does not allow me to embed the video on the blog).

During the discussion, Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that Thomas Jefferson believed he was a Christian.  You can see how they unpack this on the video, but I want to go on record and say that their claim is correct. (I also noted this in my post this morning on historical thinking).  Jefferson did believe that he was a Christian. As Onuf notes, his view of Christianity was grounded solely in the moral teachings of Jesus.  He did not believe in miracles, the deity of Christ, the resurrection (perhaps the ultimate miracle), the inspiration of the Bible, etc. Jefferson believed he could reject these beliefs and doctrines and still call himself a Christian.

Onuf even suggests (and he realizes he is being controversial and provocative here) that Jefferson wanted to forge a Christian nation.  For many who read this blog, or have read my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: Historical Introduction, this claim will set off red flags.  Yet, I think Onuf’s point is a logical extension of his view of Jefferson’s religion.  Jefferson did believe that the American republic would be stronger, more virtuous, if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus. He wanted America to be a Christian nation as he understood the true meaning of Christianity.  As I say in my book, the answer to the “Christian nation” question really depends on how the terms are defined.

I think there is a lesson in historical thinking here.  Gordon-Reed and Onuf do not seem to be claiming that Jefferson was right or wrong about whether he was a Christian or whether America should be a Christian nation, although I must admit that Onuf seems to come very close to doing this when he talks about his own Unitarian faith.

A few more reflections:

  1.  Onuf suggests that Jefferson’s belief in a creator and an intelligent universe was an act of worship and a “leap of faith.”  That’s true.  But one does not have to be a Christian (at least how I define the term) to worship God and believe in an intelligent creator.  By Onuf’s standard, Abraham Lincoln was a Christian as well.  (Although I am guessing Onuf would have no problem calling him one, contra Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg Prize-winning biography).  But I wonder, can one argue historically that Christian America bookChristians have always believed in certain non-negotiable doctrines and that the rejection of those doctrines means that you are not a Christian?
  2. And this leads to another observation.  It seems Onuf thinks the term “Christian” is important.  What is at stake if Jefferson is not a Christian?  (Or if a Unitarian is not a Christian?)  Why is this important?  (I guess I could ask myself the same question).
  3. For me the most fascinating part of this discussion is that both Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf seem to believe that the personal religious faith of the historian–Methodism in Gordon-Reed’s case and Unitarian in Onuf’s case–might have some influence or provide some insight into how the historian works.  Now it’s my turn to be provocative: Perhaps we should sign them up to write essays for the second edition of Confessing History.

Again, there are more questions here than definitive answers, but this whole discussion has really peaked my interest.

 

12 thoughts on “Peter Onuf Kicks the “Christian America” Hornet’s Nest

  1. Jefferson was surely a “Jesusian,” but since the etymology of Christos means he is “anointed” [“anointed one”], Jefferson shows no direct indication he believed that Jesus had any divine warrant whatsoever.

    Peter Onuf is a 21st century “Unitarian,” but in that church even belief in God is now optional. By contrast, the unitarians of the Founding era believed Jesus was indeed “anointed,” and more.

    http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2010/02/who-were-unitarians.html

    Unless Onuf believes Jesus was “the Christ,” I don’t think it’s uncharitable to say he’s not [a] Christian.

    Like

  2. So I’ve been following this discussion on Twitter and Facebook and just wanted to offer my own thoughts on the discussion and its topic. The question of whether Jefferson was a Christian by contemporary standards is not a historical question and therefore, to me, is uninteresting (if not meaningless). That Jefferson described himself as a Christian, however, is interesting. Yet, of course, that needs to be unpacked. Hence, the main historical question to arise out of the entire exchange is: How did Jefferson define what it meant to be a “Christian?” Unfortunately, I have not yet read Annette and Peter’s book so I cannot comment on their interpretation (though that doesn’t seem to have stopped others from not just commenting on but disagreeing with it).

    However, during the discussion someone mentioned “Primitive Christianity,” which seemed a potentially apt description to me since I’ve always thought that Jefferson’s religious ideas were very similar to those of William Livingston, who professed to be an adherent of Primitive Christianity in the 1750s. The modus operandi of Primitive Christianity was to reject anything that did not come directly from the Bible, including all extraneous rituals and dogma instituted by the churches. Livingston wrote, “Whoever believes, that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, sent of God, to instruct Mankind, and practices the Morality he taught, is to all Intents and Purposes, a compleat Christian.” He rejected all dogma as “cabalistical Jargon,” which over the centuries had been piled up rendering “modern Christianity” virtually “unintelligible.” He went on to say, “All the Faith [Primitive Christianity] requires is, that Christ was the promised Messiah, and its moral Directions may be contained in a Sheet of Paper.” As a dedicated Enlightened rationalist, he believed that Christianity did not require “any other Belief of the Truth of a Fact of Proposition, than such as is supported by rational Testimony,” which he considered the Bible to be. Beyond the Bible, he believed, man could know nothing else of God. Religious truth, as it were, would always remain “shrouded in impenetrable darkness.” He even went so far as to say, “The Truth is, we have no adequate Idea of Spirit at all.” Therefore, it made no sense for anyone to act ill toward another for holding different beliefs. That tolerance was also key, as Livingston claimed “that a Man may be a good Christian, tho’ he be of no Sect in Christendom.” All of this is to say that being a Christian had far more to do with how one behaved than what specific dogma they believed. The idea was to get back to the bare essence of Christianity as it had been before it had become corrupted by churches and their clergy, i.e., to get back to living according to the simple, unencumbered moral precepts espoused by Jesus himself. As such, he could not understand why “there should be a Necessity for countless Systems to explain what could not be misunderstood, and to illustrate with endless Comments, what was wrote in Sun-Beams?” Ultimately, Livingston’s Primitive Christianity was, like Jefferson’s Bible, an act of rational reductionism aimed at clearing away the fog and clouds to read the “Sun-Beams.”

    Note: In terms of a caveat, I am not a historian of religion. And, Primitive Christianity has a very interesting history that goes back farther than Livingston and the 1750s to, at least, late seventeenth-century England. I offer the above only as an example of similar ideas in the eighteenth-century American context. Livingston’s most dedicated essays on this subject can be found in issues 31 and 46 of The Independent Reflector entitled, respectively, “Primitive Christianity short and intelligible, modern Christianity voluminous and incomprehensible,” and “Of Creeds and Systems, together with the Author’s own Creed.” See The Independent Reflector, ed. Milton M. Klein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 270-77, 387-99.

    Like

    • Thanks for the post Michael. I am going to need to mull this over a bit. Here are some quick responses. First, most people, before and after TJ, believed that primitive Christianity was, indeed, based on the Bible and the Bible alone. Primitivism was (and is), in many ways, the most logical manifestation of Protestantism. Having said that, most primitivists would also embrace miracles, the resurrection, and other things that happened in the Bible. Second, I am only now beginning to dive into Livingston’s theology. I am going to assume here that you know him better. I am going into my study of his religion with an open mind, but I am going to need to be convinced that he was not a sectarian dissenting Reformed-Calvinist Christian and not an adherent to the kind of enlightened latitudinarianism that you suggest. After reading your post, I wondered how Livingston’s argument with the Anglicans in New York fit into this. Was it just a political or church-state difference? Or were there theological differences? Third, I am not entirely convinced whether or not Jefferson was a Christian by contemporary standards is an unimportant or meaningless intellectual exercise. This goes back to my post today on continuity. If there are certain non-negotiables that have always defined Christians through the ages (and the rejection of these core beliefs, however we draw the boundaries, mean that a person is NOT a Christian), then maybe it is fair to judge TJ on the “contemporary standards” of Christian orthodoxy. (Again, I am still working through this). Moreover, this conversation is important when people like David Barton claims that Jefferson was a Christian who would fit comfortably in his (Barton’s) view of the world. As someon with a foot in that world I think this is an important and meaningful conversation.

      Like

  3. Livingston wrote, “Whoever believes, that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, sent of God, to instruct Mankind, and practices the Morality he taught, is to all Intents and Purposes, a compleat Christian.” He rejected all dogma as “cabalistical Jargon,” which over the centuries had been piled up rendering “modern Christianity” virtually “unintelligible.” He went on to say, “All the Faith [Primitive Christianity] requires is, that Christ was the promised Messiah, and its moral Directions may be contained in a Sheet of Paper.”

    Can’t find Jefferson attesting to Jesus being the Messiah anywhere to my knowledge.

    Livingston, here. Also Locke, arguably. The Founding-era unitarians, definitely, see above. Jesus = Messiah is a workable definition of Christianity esp in the socio-political sense. It means that the Bible, even if corrupted by the Catholic Church over the ages [as John Adams, et al., contended], still holds divine truth.

    God either spoke to man directly, or He did not. This is the Deist equation. God either intervened in human history or He didn’t. Locke very timidly suggests that God did.

    Experience shows, that the knowledge of morality, by mere natural light, (how agreeable soever it be to it,) makes but a slow progress, and little advance in the world. And the reason of it is not hard to be found in men’s necessities, passions, vices, and mistaken interests; which turn their thoughts another way: and the designing leaders, as well as following herd, find it not to their purpose to employ much of their meditations this way.

    Or whatever else was the cause, it is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality. It never from unquestionable principles, by clear deductions, made out an entire body of the “law of nature.”

    And he that shall collect all the moral rules of the philosophers, and compare them with those contained in the New Testament, will find them to come short of the morality delivered by our Saviour, and taught by his apostles; a college made up, for the most part, of ignorant, but inspired fishermen.

    Like

  4. John: A very nice analysis (as usual). I generally agree w/ Peter and Annette on the specifics of what Jefferson believed (it is well documented), but I think calling Jefferson a “Christian” is to play a semantic game (and Peter and I have had this conversation). Given his beliefs, would others in the 18th or 21st century call him a Christian? (I also think that it is technically wrong to call him a deist as he believed that God actively supported the universe on an ongoing basis, although he rejected Biblical miracles — again, Peter and I have had that conversation.) Jefferson at other times says that his beliefs are “Christianism.” In terms of a “Christian nation,” again, I agree w/ Peter substantively — Jefferson thought Christianity, as he defined it, was the best system of religion for a republic of different peoples (especially the love your enemy command) — but this is clearly not what is normally intended when the term is used.

    Like

    • Thanks for weighing-in on this, John. It is good to see a scholar on Jefferson’s religion with a slightly different view on this (than Onuf).. I seem to remember discussing Jefferson’s alleged “deism” with you as well. My post did not get into Onuf’s claim that TJ was a deist, but I come down with you on this.

      Like

    • In terms of a “Christian nation,” again, I agree w/ Peter substantively — Jefferson thought Christianity, as he defined it, was the best system of religion for a republic of different peoples (especially the love your enemy command) — but this is clearly not what is normally intended when the term is used.

      That Jefferson did not believe the Bible to be Divine Writ–the literal word of God–is largely agreed upon. But as a moral handbook, he found it quite adequate, indeed admirable if not definitive. So it appears we still have Jefferson approving a functionally Christian nation.

      but this is clearly not what is normally intended when the term is used

      Oh, I’d say the so-called “Christian Nationists” would be quite happy with “functionally” Biblical America, Prof. Ragosta.

      I’ll further argue that it was just that way in the Founding era–not that the Founding proceeded from the Bible as much as that it quite consciously avoided conflict with the Bible.

      The Bible was not the rulebook but it was the backstop. Even for Jefferson.

      Like

  5. Thanks for the discussion, and I’m glad John Ragosta jumped in.

    One point I haven’t seen made is how Jefferson’s contemporaries viewed him.

    I tried to enter this as a comment, but WordPress deleted it, so it became a stand-alone blog post instead. Enjoy: http://wp.me/p2ZhsK-IV .

    Like

Comments are closed.