"I acknowledge myself a unitarian -- Believing that the Father alone, is the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived his Being, and all his powers and honors from the Father."
"There is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses, that three is one, and one three."
-- Abigail Adams to John Quincy Adams, May 5, 1816.
Tom Van Dyke emails me suggesting I/we need to better explain why the Trinity and its absence (part of a conspicuous top down paradigm by the "key Founders," who themselves disproportionately disbelieved in the Trinity) from the political-theological landscape of the American Founding makes a difference at all. As the Abigail Adams' above quote illustrates there were (or probably were) a lot more prominent Christian minded unitarians who believed Jesus the Son of God (though not God the Son) and Savior of the World, than cold Deists who believed Jesus either a fraud at worst or (like Thomas Paine) a nice guy at best. Even Thomas Jefferson called Jesus "our Savior" (though 100% man, not God at all) and idolized another Socinian Unitarian, Joseph Priestley, who, unlike Jefferson believed in the Resurrection (as did John Adams).
In a sense Van Dyke's assertion that as long as you have Providence, Jesus as Savior (not necessarily as 2nd Person in the Trinity) and large parts of the Bible as God's Holy Writ (not necessarily the infallibility of the Biblical canon) that's "Christian" enough for a meaningful historical-political-theological understanding of America's Founding reflects a classical unitarian mindset. It was unitarians like Richard Price who argued exactly that and "orthodox" like Timothy Dwight who argued unless you had the Trinity, you didn't have "Christianity."
Okay: The difference between Jesus as God the Son, 2nd Person in the Trinity and Jesus as Son of God, Savior of Mankind.
Theologically this is the difference between orthodox Christianity on the one hand and Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnessism, and any other heterodox, non-Trinitarian creed that presents itself as "Christianity" on the other.
[I stress Mormons, JWs when discussing classical unitarianism because the term "Unitarian" to our modern ears connotes the modern Unitarian Universalist Church. God love them, but, they -- or at least many of them -- seem far less religious or theistic than the unitarians and Unitarians of the Founding era. I respect the arguments of UUs that they are the heirs to America's Founding era political theology; however it could be that more devoutly religious heretics like Mormons, JWs, and mainline Christian denominations who are "iffy" on the Trinity are the true heirs to the theology of a Jefferson, J. Adams, Washington, etc.]
Are the differences between these creeds meaningful? Perhaps not to an anti-religious atheist. To a Christopher Hitchens, they are all irrational religious nuts. However to most of my "orthodox" friends, the difference between their creed and that of the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses or any Trinity denier is profound. Non-Trinitarians are "not Christians" and engage in soul damning heresies (to Roman Catholics, rejecting the Trinity is a potential SDH; to reformed/evangelicals, rejecting the Trinity is an actual SDH).
Further, if you are not a Trinitarian, you are not "regenerate," don't have the Holy Spirit (third person in the Trinity) in you. Of course God uses non-regenerate, non-Spirit filled men (as the orthodox should view America's key Founders) to accomplish His will. But that adds to the mystery of why God would choose non-Spirit filled men like Washington, J. Adams and Jefferson to accomplish His will in Founding America and arguably use sinful means (violating Romans 13) to do so.
So we've seen the Trinity as a matter of profound importance in personal theology, but what about politics? To even ask that question illustrates the political-theological problem that has long plagued Western-Christendom.
Christians believe all authority -- including the political -- ultimately ascends upwards to God. Thus it's important to understand who this God is and what are His attributes? Does the buck stop at a triune God, a unitary God, Allah or Ganesh? Are they all one and the same?
Further, some argue all politics ultimately have religious underpinnings. Someone once said "politics is theology applied." Hence, the inevitable existence of "political-theology."
Some questions that we, as a polity, need to answer: Is it important that America, as a polity, makes supplications to God? And if so, are we making public-political supplications to the actual God that exists or some man made false god? Are all gods man made and false? Can one supplicate to the God of the Bible while ignoring His Triune nature? Does the Bible in fact teach God has a Triune nature? Do Jews and Christians worship the same God? If so, why not Muslims?
Again, note, America's Founders commonly made supplications to Providence but almost NEVER to the Triune God. As Justice Scalia accurately summarized it in the most recent Supreme Court Ten Commandments case:
All of the actions of Washington and the First Congress upon which I have relied, virtually all Thanksgiving Proclamations throughout our history, and all the other examples of our Government’s favoring religion that I have cited, have invoked God, but not Jesus Christ.
This is not necessarily the Christian God (though if it were, one would expect Christ regularly to be invoked, which He is not)....
Further, what does God require in worldly politics? One traditional Calvinist notion demands that political bodies make a covenant to God, that is the Triune God of the Bible. This is what many American colonies did, but what America's Founders (1776-1791) purposefully DID NOT do. Instead of a covenant to the Triune God of the Bible, America's Founders replaced it with an homage to the Creator/Nature's God/Providence/Supreme Judge of the World in the DOI and with Art. VI. Cl. 3 in the US Constitution. Hence America's Founding political theology is not Trinitarian, arguably not "Christian."
Another authentic expression of orthodox Trinitarian political theology is that Romans 13 gives guidelines for rulers, but ultimately demands submission to government no matter WHO is in power, even if pagan tyrants. This was Calvin's position. Arguably this was St. Paul's position when he told believers to submit to the pagan psychopath Nero. Thus revolt -- whether to Clinton, Obama, Reagan, GW or GHW Bush, Stalin or Hitler -- is forbidden. But godly rulers, once in power, are free to enact biblically influenced laws, for instance the burning of heretics at the stake.
Like the Roman Catholic Church before him, John Calvin had heretics, or at least one prominent heretic -- the unitarian Michael Servetus -- burned at the stake for publicly denying the Trinity. This was an expression of authentic Trinitarian Christian political theology. Calvin's logic was irresistible: Heretics engage in soul damning heresies. When they proselytize, they lead others to engage in SDHs. Consequently, their public execution is justified in order to dissuade others from soul damning error.
But, if the Trinity really doesn't matter -- as America's key Founders (and apparently Tom Van Dyke) saw it -- then why not grant religious liberty to everyone while paying homage to "religion" in general and "Christianity" (broadly defined, sans the orthodox Trinitarian doctrines) in particular?
THAT'S where the ignoring of the Trinity in America's Founding politics mattered. We could not get religious liberty until we removed the Trinity and cognate orthodox doctrines from politics. And on a personal note, I'm glad America's Founders did this.
Finally, I am not an orthodox Christian so I ask any of my orthodox and non-orthodox readers and commenters to likewise chime in and explain why orthodoxy/the Trinity makes a difference in theology and in politics.