Politicians and “Christian America”


Check out Sam Haselby‘s 4th of July post at The Washington Post: “What politicians means when they say the United States was founded as a Christian nation?

Here is a taste:

…today’s debate is rather stark, with Christian nationalists such as Pence and Sessions, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), committed to an evangelical Protestant vision that comes down to little more than pro-life politics, home schooling and rote patriotism. Anti-religious liberals, such as comedian Bill Maher, on the other hand, don’t know much about religion at all.

Why has such a vibrant debate dimmed to a litany of talking points? Partially, the answer is that American Christianity has changed. But more important, rather than a historical disagreement or a philosophical one, today’s argument about whether America was founded as a Christian nation is a political one. Arguing whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation is usually just a coded way of asserting about what kind of nation we want America to be. That’s a discussion worth havingand having it directly, without bad historical justifications — an endeavor America’s Founders could have respected.

It’s a nice piece.  I encourage you to read Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.

Haselby’s piece reflects a position I have been arguing here and elsewhere for close to a Reviseddecade and it drives home some of the fundamental questions and issues I have raised in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (And our current #ChristianAmerica tweetstorm!)

On Sasse:  I have never heard him speak about Christian nationalism, but I have a hard time believing he accepts that view.  It is possible to be conservative and reject the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  In fact, some of the best stuff written on the subject has come from folks in this camp.

Was John Adams a Christian?

a8345-adamsIn light of the recent Twitter debate between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby on the religion of Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would call your attention to a blog post from my friend Matthew Hunter.

I don’t know if Hunter was aware of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate when he wrote this, but his post about John Adams clearly comes down on the Haselby side.  Adams may have thought he was a Christian, but his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the trinity makes it difficult to label him as one.  Adams may have said he was a Christian, but he was not.

So how do we interpret Adams’s religion? Do we take Adams’s word for it?  Or do we interpret Adams’s faith in light of the history of Christian orthodoxy?  As I said several times in the midst of the Gordon-Reed/Haselby debate, the former is a a historical issue and the latter is a theological issue.  This does not mean that these two ways of understanding of the world cannot speak to one another.  In fact, some interdisciplinary thinkers like Hunter might argue that they should be speaking to one another.

In the end, Hunter is correct about at least one thing.  When we  point out that Adams’s beliefs were unorthodox we set the record straight for the Christian nationalists who want to use the second president’s supposed Christian beliefs to promote a political agenda in the present.  John Adams may have been a Christian, but I am guessing that David Barton would not want to have him on the elder board of his church.

Here is a taste of Hunter’s post:

This is a hard post to write, because suggesting any sort of gulf that favors the scholarly view is going to be tainted with a certain elitism that smacks of the sort of gulf represented above, where a semi-divine historical person presides over the terrestrial mess of mortals. There are things that they know that mere mortals cannot know. And you know that scholars are not semi-divine. Nevertheless, a gulf exists. I write this as someone whose academic training was a blend of history, social sciences and theology, so I am not strictly “a historian,” though the American founding does factor into my work.

The gulf I have in mind was brought back to the forefront of my mind when Susan Lim, a reputable Christian historian at Biola recently wrote an article about religion and the Founding Fathers for Christianity Today. Lim wrote,

“Washington’s successor, John Adams, was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian. As David McCullough recounts in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Adams regularly boasted of his Puritan ancestry, sometimes bordered on legalism (he often refused to travel on the Sabbath), and occasionally cast stones against those he deemed less spiritual than himself. For example, Adams made it a point to highlight Jefferson’s nontraditional religious convictions when they both vied for the presidency.”

This surprised me, because I believed it was fairly well established that Adams was basically a U/unitarian (did not believe in the Trinity) unlike the Puritans, though he may have remained in Puritan Congregationalist churches. I wrote the following email to Susan (actually, I emailed “Dr. Lim” who graciously told me to call her Susan):

“I have no doubt that Adams was a man of faith and may have valued his Puritan heritage, but it seems to me that we have it pretty decisively in his own words that he was a Unitarian and (perhaps a bit more ambiguously) that he also had serious reservations about the incarnation. I appreciate the fact that there is some disagreement on this, but it mostly seems to come from American Filiopietists with political agendas.  I’m not sure how you say that he was born into a devout Christian family and raised to carry on Puritan traditions. The second president of the United States never wavered away from his faith, nor did he ever see any conflict in being both an independent thinker and committed Christian.” I guess I can sort of spin this in a way, but I think it is liable to mislead many readers.”

Susan responded: “No doubt, the term “Puritan” is a messy one.  I shy away from it in my research.  I used it here because I assume that the majority of the readers aren’t academics, and the term “Congregational” won’t resonate with as many readers.  Puritanism has come to mean so many things to so many people; and as I’m sure you know, many of the social constructs of Puritanism were made in the 19th C (largely through fiction) to comment on Victorian society (by using Puritans as actors).  Or, as Mencken wrote, that Puritanism is thought of as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.  Of course we know that this obviously doesn’t do the Puritans justice.  What I meant was that John Adams hailed from a Puritan/Congregational family, and remained committed to his Congregational church.  Yes, that church (along with many other  Congregationalist churches) moved towards Unitarianism by the mid-18th C, but I didn’t want to go into the development of Congregationalism (or Puritanism, if you will) here.”

Note that if this is true, Adams was in the advance guard of a group of Puritan Congregationalists who rejected the the doctrine of the Trinity that had defined Christian Orthodoxy for around 1400 years. At the time, many/most U/unitarians did consider themselves Christians and their services of worship would have resembled Trinitarian Puritans’ services a great deal. Susan Lim is a knowledgeable scholar. She also possesses the virtue of inclusion in her approach to John Adams and Christianity (something many contemporary Christians could learn from). I don’t believe she was trying to fool anyone. However, I still think this way of writing about things plays into the hands of those who have a political agenda and are also much sloppier in their characterizations of the faith of the founders. 

Read the rest here.

Jefferson, Christianity, and Twitter: A Roundup

It all began on a Memorial Day weekend Saturday morning.  I was sipping coffee and flipping channels when I saw two familiar faces:  Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf. They were on stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia talking about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs.  CSPAN was covering it.

I composed this tweet:

Shortly thereafter Sam Haselby, the author of the excellent The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, jumped into the conversation.  So did Annette Gordon-Reed (yes the CSPAN event was pre-recorded).  So did several others.

After an hour or so, I had to move on to other projects:

Then came the highlight of my day.  A Pulitzer-Prize winning historian told me to “be responsible” as I painted and caulked.

After I left, the conversation about whether or not it was appropriate to call Jefferson a “Christian” continued.  And continued. And continued until it was just Gordon-Reed and Haselby.

Michael Hattem storified the entire thing here.

Since then, there have been several blog posts addressing this fascinating debate.  Here they are:

John Fea, “Peter Onuf Kicks the ‘Christian America’ Hornets Nest.”

John Fea, “Do Historians Privilege Change Over Time Over Continuity?

Roy Rogers, “The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia”

Jonathan Den Hartog, “Jefferson and Christianity”

Ben Park, “Religion and the Founding: Part I of Probably Many”

Nick Satin, “Thomas Jefferson, Peter Onuf, and the ‘Christian Nation'”


Sam Haselby on Thomas Jefferson and American Religious Nationalism

The website Religion & Politics is running an adapted excerpt from Sam Haselby‘s excellent book The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.  Some of you may recall that we featured Haselby’s book in a recent “Author’s Corner” post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Our friend John Wilsey recently reviewed it here.

Haselby is senior editor at Aeon and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University.

Here is a taste of his excerpt on Thomas Jefferson and American religion:

For the inscription on his tombstone, Jefferson chose three accomplishments: the Declaration of Independence, the founding of the University of Virginia, and Virginia’s 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom. Each of these achievements is related to the problem of religion and nationalism. In the Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson characteristically brought high rationalism to the subject of religion and poetry to the scientific spirit. His testimony to the power of truth and free inquiry, closing the first section of the statute, is the very essence of the Enlightenment: “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” wrote Jefferson: “She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless, by human interpolation, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate—errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.” Madison’s deft stewardship through the Virginia House of Delegates made the bill into law, and he wrote to Jefferson exulting that we “have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Jefferson concurred, replying that “kings, priests, & nobles” had for centuries conspired to keep man in ignorant subordination. It was Virginia’s great honor “to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions.” In the context of early modern political philosophy, to state that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his opinions was another way of stating the radical content of “all men are created equal.” The famous phrase did not mean that men possessed equal physical or intellectual capacities. It meant that all men could reason and were capable of acting as responsible, and accountable, moral agents. It was, and remains, a radical idea. 

Disestablishment and freedom of religion amounted to historic secular achievements, but Jefferson and Madison had intended them as simply creating the conditions of possibility, as the first steps, toward a secular society. Positive measures must follow. The most important were founding schools and libraries, educating qualified teachers, and providing the people with rudimentary scientific and literary education, especially in philosophy. Scientific and philosophical education was necessary to replace the moral influence, social programs, and historical teachings of the churches. So Jefferson proposed alternatives to Christian institutions. In the 1785–1786 session of the Virginia Assembly, his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” was bill number 82 of 126 proposed bills. Bills 79, 80, and 81 were also Jefferson’s. These bills proposed to create a nonreligious school system, organized by county and providing free education through the elementary grades; to sever the College of William and Mary’s church ties and make it a republican college; and to establish a public library system built around science, philosophy, and civics. An ally of Jefferson’s aptly described the ambition of the measures. They “propose a simple and beautiful scheme, whereby science . . . would have been ‘carried to every man’s door,’” he wrote. Emphasizing the need to reach and, through education, change the public, he wrote: “Genius, instead of having to break its way through the thick opposing clouds of native obscurity, indigence, and ignorance, was to be sought for through every family in the commonwealth.” Churches would have been the big losers of this “systematical plan,” but their opposition was not the only reason it failed to materialize. The nature of Southern plantation society did not permit potential alternatives, such as state-run school systems, to planter authority. Slavery was simply more important to American nation-building than secularism. The planters, however, cannot be held uniquely responsible. With notable exceptions, for example the French state education system, secularists generally failed to build institutions that offered alternatives to Christian social, political, and personal morality.