“Secular” Jefferson?

This is a second follow up to my initial thoughts on the latest “Christian nation” ballyhoo. In this post I would like to reflect on Thomas Jefferson’s “secularism.”

In my essay juxtaposing Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s contrasting understanding of human nature, I painted Hamilton as much more of an authentic Christian and referred to Jefferson as “much more secular.” (For the record, I consider Hamilton something of a latter-day Augustine of Hippo and would dissent from those historians who view the “robust” portion of his life as an absence of religion; instead, I see the Augustinian search for restfulness in that Truth found only in God. Admittedly, this is an ahistorical bordering on theological argument.) Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed’s scholarship communicated via the aforementioned “Christian nation” ballyhoo that Jefferson in fact considered himself a devout Christian forces me to reevaluate, or at least re-present my position vis-à-vis Jefferson.

Professor Gordon-Reed has claimed both on the C-Span book discussion and on Twitter it is not for her to define someone else’s Christianity, nor does she consider it appropriate for others to do so. In other words, without getting into her reasoning (she explains it on the C-Span discussion), if Jefferson says he is a Christian, she takes him at his word. Let’s use Gordon-Reed’s logic and apply it to two modern individuals:

I have implied in the past President Obama is not authentically Christian, despite the soon-to-be former President’s own words. John Fea, on the other hand, rather famously landed in Glenn Beck’s sights for positing exactly opposite my assertion.

Presidential nominee Donald Trump (God help us) claims he is a Christian. Articles such as this found on the Patheos Atheist Channel running through the veracity of Trump’s Christianity is indicative of any number of articles sprouting up recently on the Internet. Two additional samples, again from John Fea (he’s a veritable treasure trove of topical sources), of more recent variety – in each of them Professor Fea doesn’t explicitly denounce Trump’s Christianity, but he sure might be suggesting Trump’s Christianity is perhaps slightly suspect.

What’s the point to all this?

Who is and isn’t authentically Christian (or authentically X) won’t be going away anytime soon. The fact these debates aren’t going away seems to refute Gordon-Reed’s preference not to define someone else’s Christianity, for the simple fact there are standards of Christianity we Christians hold others accountable to (all the individuals I have discussed in these posts claim to be Christian: Onuf, Gordon-Reed, Fea, myself). We might fiercely disagree about these standards, but nevertheless these standards exist. In Jefferson’s day, the very same arguments were held, as Jefferson’s political opponents accused him of atheism. At bare minimum, to call oneself Christian obliges a particular disposition and set of outward behaviors.

Where it becomes thorny are articles of faith. But to use Jefferson and Unitarians as an example (I have heard some, such as my former professor Glenn Sunshine refer to Jefferson as a Unitarian rationalist, and to be honest I’m not sure if there’s a difference between “Unitarian” and “Unitarian rationalist,” because it’s not a term I’ve heard expressed outside of a handful of academics), to deny the supernatural and still refer to oneself as a Christian…that puts the individual within a decided minority, to the point where I imagine my allegation of a “secular” Jefferson carries weight. Some might rebut Jefferson attended Christian services regularly and used federal money to pay for weekly Christian services in federal buildings, yet if the account we have is in any way accurate, Jefferson only performed these actions to set a good example, not out of any personal belief.

Ultimately, no one can judge a person’s soul and no one can read a person’s heart, and we must be cautious to ensure we do not give that impression. However, as I indicated in my first post over this controversy, definitions do matter, and we can define someone else’s religion, or at least have the debate if nothing else.


To be clear, when I speak of “[denying] the supernatural and still [referring] to oneself as a Christian…that puts the individual within a decided minority,” I am harkening back to my previous post in which I reflected upon how the expunging of the miraculous from the Bible turns the book as well as Jesus into nothing but an ethical guidebook no different from what can be found in any number of other, non-Christian sources.


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