1) Speaking as an evangelical Christian, I know that there is only one correct definition of the term “Christian” – that is, a true follower of Jesus Christ who has repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior – i.e. been “born again.” Getting to that point entails assent to certain fundamental beliefs on the part of the individual. It is not simply a club membership.
2) Speaking as a historian, there are many definitions of the term “Christian” – depending on the training, purposes, biases, beliefs, and historical/cultural context of the individual historian. Consequently, it’s not a very useful or helpful or meaningful term in the hands of a historian as such. Each historian is obliged to define what he means by the term, if he’s going to use it. In my work, I set aside my own personal definition because I wanted to know whether 18th century American Christians would consider the key Founders to be “Christians” by the beliefs that they held. I thought (and still think) it important to determine what beliefs their contemporaries thought were necessary to identify someone as an actual Christian.
3) A critical question to ask is whether someone has signed on to Jesus as the Christ – or whether they only recognize Jesus the moral teacher. I would suggest that those I call theistic rationalists should, at best, be called “Jesusians,” not Christians. Jesus was important to most of them (though not all), but Christ was not. They never referred to Him as “Christ;” if they used anything beyond Jesus, they preferred “Jesus of Nazareth” because it emphasized his humanity. They liked Jesus the moral teacher, but had no room for Jesus the Christ. They did not believe in the Christ that is the core of the term “Christian” – so how is it an appropriate term for them? [Of course, there is no distinction between Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the moral teacher, and Jesus the Christ – BUT THEY THOUGHT THERE WAS, and we’re trying to understand/categorize them]
4) I’m not interested in the club membership notion of what constitutes a Christian. As an evangelical Christian, I’m not interested in it because God is not interested in that notion – man looks at the outside, but God looks at the heart. But as a historian, I’m not interested in that notion, either, because it doesn’t tell us anything of importance. Mr. Van Dyke is concerned to protect the role of “Christianity” in the Founding – but if Christianity is nothing more than self-proclaimed membership in a club (denomination) or a vague notion that Jesus was an important person for whatever reason, what’s important about its role? If it didn’t have any particular content or meaning, how is it any more important than the role of powdered wigs or pubs or horsemanship or any number of trivial things? How is it any more important than to follow the role of chess clubs?
5) Aren’t we primarily concerned about ideas when we talk of the role of a religion or belief system? That’s what I think is important, so I think it is critical to determine what the key Founders thought and, so that we don’t have to talk about each individually, to try to correctly categorize their beliefs when possible. It does no favor to Christianity to include in its roll those whose beliefs run precisely counter to it; it’s misleading – and it’s not historically accurate, either.
6) John Kennedy gained about 12% in polls and was elected president after famously holding a press conference in which he made it crystal clear that Catholic beliefs would play no role in his actions as president. So, other than for demographic or presidential trivia purposes, of what significance was the fact that he belonged to the Catholic club? He clearly did not believe in the core doctrines of his church (he said as much), so Catholic beliefs made no impact on his presidency – what he really believed is what made a difference. I am interested in the political theology of the American Founding – the beliefs that really impacted the American Founding – not the beliefs that didn’t. It is distracting, misleading, and false to talk of the role of Christianity while talking about people who did not hold to Christian beliefs. In recent embarrassing television appearances, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi made it crystal clear that they do not hold to the Catholic Church’s beliefs concerning the life of the unborn – so for the purposes of that issue, it is completely irrelevant and even misleading that they self-identify as Catholics. An uninformed voter might be ardently pro-life, see that they are listed as “Catholic,” and vote for them on false pretenses. Similarly, historians and non-historians who traffic in pseudo-history (such as Barton) may be misled or may mislead based on assumptions made on the basis of the term “Christian” or “Christianity.”