Thomas Jefferson, Peter Onuf, & the “Christian Nation”

Historians Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed recently published what appears to be a watershed work on Thomas Jefferson entitled “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. Onuf and Gordon-Reed are the acknowledged Jefferson scholars among historians, and it was my joy to have Professor Onuf as my instructor this past fall in my graduate class on Jefferson. Prior to Most Blessed, Onuf is probably best known for his book, Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood, a standard Jeffersonian text, while Gordon-Reed ruffled everyone’s feathers by confirming Jefferson was, in all probability, the father of Sally Hemings’s children.

A controversy has arisen in the past forty-eight hours from the back-and-forth historians were involved in with Gordon-Reed on Twitter (I watched this unfold live) over Onuf’s claim Jefferson desired a “Christian nation.” I have yet to read Most Blessed, and Gordon-Reed says this theme is more fully developed in the book, but Onuf made this particular claim as part of a book discussion which aired on C-Span found here.

Historian John Fea, who is a prolific writer and blogger, was one of the individuals involved in the skirmish with Gordon-Reed and he subsequently fleshed out his thoughts more precisely on his blog. His post really gets at why Onuf’s assertion is so controversial and provides some especially valuable insight I would like to respond to:

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.

1. Fea is absolutely correct: we must define our terms. Let’s start with “Christian nation.” There are many definitions of this phrase. Faux-historian David Barton has one. Thomas Jefferson apparently had a different one. Present-day Evangelical Christians across the spectrum of Evangelicalism have an array of definitions to match their array of evangelicalism. The secularists and anti-theists have a counter definition. Non-Christians also proffer their own definition and meaning too. Part of the problem with a phrase such as “Christian nation” is this constantly shifting set of definitions and amorphous nature of its meaning. Historians like Fea and Thomas Kidd have attempted to present more historically-centered definitions in their respective works and thus ground the phrase’s meaning into something concrete and tangible. The definition I argue to be best, and one which as of now is the subject of my graduate thesis and one of my book projects, is in that historically-centered vein: that the United States is a Christian nation insofar as the principles and ideas upon which the country was predicated originate from Catholicism, which itself means, in part, “historic Christianity.” In other words, without Catholicism, I contend, there is no Declaration of Independence, nor is there a Constitution or Bill of Rights as those documents were conceived, written, and passed/ratified.

2. Staying with the theme of “definition,” on Twitter Gordon-Reed argued it was wrong, in some capacity, to “define someone else’s Christianity.” She then went on to claim Christianity itself is not for “others” (my term, not Gordon-Reed’s) to define. Fea and others took issue with this position, as do I. The context for this particular aspect of the debate was whether Jefferson was indeed a Christian, regardless if he considered himself one. I think Gordon-Reed is wrong. Christianity can be defined and that definition can be placed onto others. If not, then there is no difference amongst any religion, any worldview, any ideology, and it’s analogous to a pantheistic soup. Even though there are stark differences between Catholics and Protestants, for example, there remain some fundamental aspects of commonality that still make us all Christian. To suggest otherwise, well, reveals either an incredible lack of intellectual depth or honesty. Certainly there are truly far-out, nutty, fringe Protestant sects out there, but the majority fall under the auspices of a “Christian” umbrella and would never be mistaken for a Jew, Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, and the like.

3. Jefferson has long been hailed by those hostile to Christianity specifically and religion more generally as one of their own, especially with their blatant misunderstanding of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” phrase. Onuf and Gordon-Reed, however, have further demonstrated that, whatever Jefferson’s personal beliefs, he nevertheless was no enemy of religion, and in truth, very much was typical of the founders in his assertion religion was necessary for the success of the American Experiment. And not just any religion, but at the very least the teachings of Jesus if not Christianity.

Back to Fea’s post. My thoughts are in bold.

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 Christians have always believed in certain non-negotiable doctrines and that the rejection of those doctrines means that you are not a Christian? To answer Fea’s question: Yes. This question alludes to the debate I discussed in Point 2 above. Have Christians “always believed in certain non-negotiable doctrines”? We have; it’s called Catholicism. Very simply, there are certain “doctrines,” as Fea calls them, that are non-negotiable if one is a Christian. If those doctrines are rejected, then one isn’t a Christian. This is an immensely important question, historically, because Fea raises the specter of Lincoln. I haven’t read Guelzo’s biography (Guelzo is about as authoritative as it gets on Lincoln), but many Christians have long embraced the Rail-Splitter as one of their own, myself included. In fact, the bishop in my new hometown even incorporates Lincoln’s axe as part of his coat-of-arms. And yet, Lincoln was seemingly no Orthodox believer. But is this an example of eisegesis, and thus poor history, as opposed to exegesis? More broadly, the individual cannot use his or her own definitions. Words, ideas, religion…even our bodies (to reference current zaniness), lose all meaning when we allow the individual to create his or her own definitions.
  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). I’m not sure there’s an answer to this query. I think the David Barton’s or some of the Evangelicals need Jefferson to be Christian to help fit their definitions of a Christian nation. For those of us who make more of a historical definition I don’t think it matters all that much. I have never considered Jefferson to be authentically “Christian,” which I suppose means I don’t consider Unitarians to be authentically Christian (which isn’t surprising because there are many denominations and sects I don’t consider Christian that others do, including adherents of the denominations and sects in question), so I guess I’m ambivalent about Jefferson’s Christianity in that I’ve never considered him “one of our own.” However, I would agree “the term ‘Christian’ is important” because it is unique: to be Christian and to adhere to Christianity means something that is unlike anything else in the world. Putting aside personal piety and the explicitly religious aspects, to speak strictly in a historical perspective, Christianity has brought about more good than any other variable in history. Ergo, I would agree with Professor Onuf that the very word “Christian” is important and we must understand what we mean when we use that word. It is also important for the other half of “understanding what we mean when we use that word”; namely, the flippancy of its use.

Onuf and Gordon-Reed certainly sparked a storm with their claim Thomas Jefferson desired  a Christian nation. Knowing the scholarship of both historians, it’s probably a thoroughly researched and documented claim; nevertheless, it has reignited fierce dissension within the discipline about just what is meant by “Christian nation” and even what it means to be a “Christian.” Perhaps more importantly, it has furthered the dialogue over the role of religion in society and government in the founding and Early Republic, which means our present culture will hopefully reevaluate its understanding of the role of religion in society and government.


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