One fascinating dynamic I've discovered researching the history of the American Founding & religion is many of the supposed "Deist" Founding Fathers actually thought of themselves as "Christians," but since they rejected Trinitarianism, the "orthodox" did not think of them as Christians, but something else.
The question is whether these "heretics" like America's key Founders and the philosophers they followed deserve the label "Christian" at all. If you listen to American orthodox theologians, they will commonly assert things such as "Christians believe in a Triune God," ergo, non-Trinitarians are not Christians. For instance listen to this very amusing debate between the "orthodox" late Bible answer man Walter Martin and the Arian-gnostic Roy Masters, whom some accuse of being a cult leader. In a nutshell: Martin: "You are not a Christian." Masters: "Yes I am."
I am going to reproduce some primary sources and scholarly material that illustrates this dynamic. First, I just discovered this excellent First Things obituary of religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan. (Thanks to co-blogger Kristo M. for alerting me to the existence of Pelikan.)
The first volume of his history of Christian thought, The Christian Tradition, begins: “What the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God: This is Christian doctrine.” His life was devoted to the exposition and teaching of that Christian doctrine....By doctrine Pelikan did not mean just any teaching. He meant the central truths of Christianity: that God is triune, that Christ is fully God and fully man—those teachings that were solemnly declared in the ancient councils and are confessed in the ecumenical creeds. His historical study had convinced him that the most faithful bearer of the apostolic faith was the great tradition of thought and practice as expounded by the orthodox Church Fathers.
In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or the Arians but also to become their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history are the dissidents, the heretics, whose insights and thinking were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great Church.
Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine....
It's understandable why folks might view various heretics, particularly of the Arian bent, as heroes, because so many leading lights believed in these heresies. Indeed if we have to sacrifice Arians (those who believe Christ was divine but created by and subordinate to the Father) as "not Christian," we have to sacrifice, among others, John Milton. As the article notes:
He said he had been reading again Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? Milton’s Paradise Lost (even though Milton was an Arian and probably a Pelagian, quipped Pelikan),...
Samuel Clarke is another Arian who comes to mind as typifying the kind of "Christianity" that so captured the minds of key Founders. For instance, as I noted in a recent post when asked to put his theological cards on the table, James Madison appealed to Samuel Clarke as authority, NOT John Witherspoon. Clarke was a "divine" in the Anglican Church. Here is what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes about him:
In 1712, apparently against the advice of some of Queen Anne's ministers, Clarke published The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, which was accused of Arianism, the view that Christ is divine but created. The ensuing controversy culminated two years later in his humiliating promise to the Upper House of Convocation not to preach or write on the topic any longer. However, this act of submission did not silence the correct rumors that he, like Newton himself, was still an Arian. How much these suspicions of heterodoxy damaged his ecclesiastical career is unclear. However, Voltaire reports that Bishop Gibson effectively prevented Clarke's elevation to the see of Canterbury by pointing out that Clarke was indeed the most learned and honest man in the kingdom, but had one defect: he was not a Christian.
Isaac Newton, mentioned in the quotation, is another Arian whom the Founders greatly admired. John Locke was either an Arian or perhaps a Socinian. The Arian Rev. Richard Price, a friend of America's Founders and one of the first "out" Unitarians in England noted in an address:
Montesquieu probably was not a Christian. Newton and Locke were not Trinitarians and therefore not Christians according to the commonly received ideas of Christianity. Would the United States, for this reason, deny such men, were they living, all places of trust and power among them?
Again, this is important evidence that supports Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis that "commonly received ideas of Christianity" in late 18th Century America did NOT consider non-Trinitarianism to be "Christianity." Every established church save the Quakers was in some way connected to a Trinitarian creed. Yet, unitarians abounded in those churches, indeed, abounded among the ranks of ministers in those churches. They faced a dillema. Those in higher positions of authority in the orthodox Trinitarian churches expected Trinitarian creeds to be recited, but the unitarians didn't want to recite those confessions. As Rev. Price put it:
Perhaps nothing more shocking to reason and humanity ever made a part of a religious system than the damning clauses in the Athanasian creed and yet the obligation of the clergy to declare assent to this creed, and to read it as a part of the public devotion, remains.
Finally here is Unitarian minister and President of Harvard in the early 19th Century, Jared Sparks, replying to a Trinitarian Christian critic who argued Unitarians are not Christians:
Your sweeping denunciation embraces all Unitarians of every age and country. If your charges are well-founded, Newton, Locke, and Chillingworth, were “no christians in any correct sense of the word, nor any more in the way of salvation, than Mohammedans or Jews?”
Oh and, just for fun, here is Sparks' argument that Locke's "Reasonableness of Christianity" was a secret unitarian tome (i.e., Locke didn't deny the Trinity but totally ignored the Trinity and related doctrines when declaring the "essentials" of Christianity, something that no Trinitarian would do, indeed something ONLY secret unitarians did in that place and time; and Locke was called out for it):
And Locke must still be considered a Unitarian, till he can be proved a Trinitarian ; a task, which it is not likely you will soon undertake. At all events, he had no faith in the assemblage of articles, which you denominate the essence of christianity, and without believing which, you say, no one can be called a Christian. His whole treatise on the Reasonableness of Christianity bears witness to this truth. For the leading object of that work is to show, that “the Gospel was written to induce men into a belief of this proposition, ‘that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah,’ which if they believed, they should have life.”* He says nothing about total depravity, the atonement, the “sanctifying spirit of an Almighty Surety,” nor any of your peculiar doctrines. Yet who has done more to elucidate the sacred Scriptures, or to prove the consistency and reasonableness of the religion of Jesus? Your rule, however, will take from him the Christian name.