[Jefferson] hated Calvin for many reasons, but he held an especially impassioned loathing for the French Reformer’s throaty trinitarianism and the doctrine of election. Calvin, in Jefferson’s reading of history, represented the clearest intellectual successor to the medieval Christian order he despised. He compared what he called the “simple” doctrines of Jesus—his phrase for Unitarianism—with “the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.”
In 1822, Thomas Jefferson was enjoying a quiet retirement at his beloved Monticello. His family troubles gave him sleepless nights but he found solace in his correspondence and, as always, in his books. The former president’s mind turned over Virginia’s politics, the state of the young American republic, and his plans for the new University of Virginia. Jefferson also experienced something of a religious awakening and became a convinced Unitarian in his last years.
Ever introspective, Jefferson thought at length about religion, especially the relative compatibility of various religious groups with what he firmly hoped would remain a liberal society. He never seemed to like historic Christianity, which he believed had been perverted at the end of the third century by Athanasius’ articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Jefferson preferred “Primitive” Christianity, in which Jesus was not God, there was no Trinity, and the church did not exercise any civil or social power. One Christian group in the United States appeared to him especially committed to each of those hated dogmas: Calvinists.
Jefferson and his relationship to Calvinism seem worth revisiting in light of the ongoing conversation regarding Christianity and the civil order among conservative Christian intellectuals. Recently on Twitter Sohrab Ahmari, a former Neo-Conservative journalist who recently converted to Roman Catholicism, tweeted that Mark David Hall’s new book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? represented a half-hearted attempt to maintain Christian politics in the United States, which he termed, “burning incense to the Founders.” Ahmari was responding to a quote from a Hillsdale PhD student, Tom Tacoma, in Tacoma’s review of Hall’s book. Tacoma said that Hall dispelled “many contemporary myths concerning religion and the founding. Let us finally be done with false claims that the founders were deists, or that they were hostile to religion and wanted to exclude it from public life.”
Tacoma is mostly correct. Hall does an admirable job of dispelling the contrived notion that the American Revolution was a sort of largely deistic enterprise. But is the reconciliation of Jefferson’s Declaration and what Straussians identify as the “Founding” all there is to the story?
Increasingly there is a cartoonish rendering of Protestant political thought that associates Protestantism with a liberal historical trajectory, and Roman Catholicism—or at least “liturgy”—with conservatism. The truth is far more complicated. In the Early Republic, Calvinism, not Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, appeared to Jefferson to be the religious persuasion most at odds with liberalism.
Since his election in 1800, Jefferson believed that Calvinists represented a return to European conservatism. The prospect of Calvinists—Congregationalists in New England, Presbyterians in the Middle Atlantic and South, and a smattering of evangelical Anglicans—exercising civil, political, or social influence in federal politics horrified the Deistic Virginian. His later embrace of Unitarianism in fact allowed him to continue his loathing of historic Christian teaching like the Trinity that he found so essential to Calvinism. Both Deists and Unitarians found the divinity of Christ and associated doctrines–the Virgin birth and the Incarnation–revolting. Jefferson’s fear of the Calvinists was not without reason.