America Had a Christian Founding - But Who Cares?
America Had a Christian Founding - But Who Cares?
In his new book, Mark David Hall addresses a question that still has relevance, even if we are transitioning into a post-Christian age.
With Did America Have a Christian Founding?, Mark David Hall has written a book that is as useful as it should be unnecessary. To anyone approaching the American founding (apologies to Russell Kirk) without ideological blinders, the religious faith of the founding generation is patently obvious. This is not to deny that there were varying levels of commitment to the Christian faith among that generation, nor that some prominent members of it held less orthodox views. But it cannot seriously be questioned that the generation that declared independence, fought the Revolutionary War, and wrote and ratified the Constitution was deeply Christian. And, as Hall shows, that faith influenced them at all points along that journey.
Hall, professor of political philosophy at George Fox University, has previously authored and edited several scholarly works on religion and the American founding, but addresses this book to the layman, each chapter dedicated to rebutting a common claim of those who he calls the "separationists" - the people who believe that the Founders sought to strictly divide religion from political society.
First, Hall addresses the claim that the Founders were all, or were at least predominately Deists, people who believed in the existence of a God, but did not believe that He intervened in the affairs of men. In order to claim that the Founders were Deists, separationists focus on a select few men who, while undoubtedly prominent, did not comprehensively comprise that generation, and in fact were not representative in their religious beliefs of the majority of Founders specifically, or American society more generally.
Indeed, in an era in which over 99 percent of Americans were Christians, and more than half (including many political leaders) were dedicated Calvinists, Hall numbers those who are claimed to be Deists at only eight. What's more, the the evidence for the alleged Deism of some of these eight (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Maidson among them) is wholly unconvincing. Others, like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, doubtlessly had unorthodox views and were given much more to Enlightenment rationalism than religious faith; yet these men still occasionally referenced the actions of God in the affairs of men and nations. Of the eight, says Hall, only Ethan Allen was unequivocally a Deist. All of this added together casts the claim that "all" or "most" of the founding generation were Deists into doubt, and in fact such claims ignore the evidence that the vast majority of the generation, including prominent figures such as Roger Sherman (of whom Hall has written an excellent biography) were Christians who took their faith seriously.
Next, Hall challenges the notion that the Constitution is a secular document, that expels all notions of religious faith from the federal government. The evidence often cited for this view is the lack of references to God in the actual Constitution, yet Hall points out that this exclusionary evidence ignores the publicly-stated beliefs of civic leaders that good government goes hand in hand with religious instruction and public morality. Hall notes that the Founders believed that religion was necessary to the maintenance of public morality upon which peaceful, republican government depends. Washington, for instance, admitted the possibility that some few people could, using reason alone, develop positive moral virtues, but that society as a whole needed religion to inculcate these things broadly, an opinion he was joined in by many other of his contemporaries. The claim, then, that the Constitution is a "godless document" that presumes nothing about society's religious beliefs is false. Rather, Hall shows that the Founders' attitudes on human nature, the necessity of limiting government power, and the idea of rights - all of which contributed to their political theory - were informed by Christian principles.
In the third chapter, Hall addresses the elephant in the room, the claim that the First Amendment created, in Jefferson's phrase, "a wall of separation" between church and state (which separationists always extend into a complete separation between all religion and all politics). These claims are almost always buttressed with appeals to Jefferson and Madison - to their work on religious liberty in Virginia, and their private opinions on religion - the implication being that it is the opinions of these two men, and them only, that gives context to the First Amendment's Establishment clause.
But, says Hall, this ignores the influence of the many other men who participated in the construction and revision of the First Amendment while simultaneously overstating the importance of figures like Jefferson and Madison. He surveys the influence, or lack thereof, of Jefferson and the 1786 Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom on the First Amendment, noting that the Virginia Statute was not widely referenced at the time the First Amendment was being debated (Hall says it was "ignored"), and that even in Virginia the Assembly did not consider the statute an incentive to sever the ties between the state and religion.
Similarly, Hall finds the claims that Madison was the sole or primary influence on the First Amendment to ignore the fact that his "Memorial and Remonstrance" (1785) in Virginia, which fought Patrick Henry's attempt to secure taxpayer funding for churches, was not as influential as is claimed, and was actually less influential than an explicitly Christian argument against Henry's bill. Of importance is that this Christian argument, which Hall notes had more signatories and was written seven months before Madison's, fought against Henry's bill in order to protect religious faith rather than to reduce its influences.
Separationists often refer to Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists (the origin of the "wall of separation" phrase) and a private letter written by Madison in 1833 in which he references "a line of separation between the rights of Religion [and] the Civil authority." But these comments do not provide the kind of support for their ideas that the separationists suppose. Hall writes, "Jefferson and Madison wanted a greater degree of separation between church and state than most of their colleagues. But they did not support the sort of strict separation advocated today..." He concludes that focusing solely on Madison and Jefferson ignores the influence of figures such as Sherman, Fisher Ames, and dozens of others who worked on the First Amendment and who did not have the views that modern anti-religionists impute to Madison - which is likely the point.
Next, Hall makes the case that the Founders believed that government and civil society should support religion and morality. He again points out how intimately connected the founding generation believed freedom and civic order were to religious, specifically Christian principles, and how they thought that the government (not necessarily the federal government) had a supporting (not primary) role to play in their preservation and dissemination. State governments routinely passed legislation designed to curtail vices and encourage virtue, with some even mandating church attendance and providing for familial Bible ownership. Hall's point is not that these are appropriate measures for today (he thinks they're not), but that in the founding era religion, morality, and civic order were all tied up together and not thought to be strictly separated, or separable.
Finally, Hall argues that the Founders' believed that true religious belief required the freedom to worship God according to one's own conscience, and that this commitment to religious liberty was often explained in explicitly Christian terms. Because of this, Americans argued for "the sacred rights of conscience," even when this meant offering protection to minority religious groups (though, due to social and political differences, this principle was not applied uniformly across the states). Practically, this resulted in a sincere attempt to accommodate the beliefs of religious minorities, notably Quakers, particularly in relation to military service. This tradition was extended throughout American history to include the beliefs of both Christian and non-Christian believers (and non-believers), but Hall observes that particularly since the turn of the 21st century the idea of accommodating religious beliefs is quickly going out of style. Hall admirably attempts to apply the Founders' spirit of accommodation to today's issues, noting that the consciences of, say, bakers and florists can be respected without harming the general principles of pluralism.
I think Hall is right to point out that proper government, being based on attempts to find compromise between different people and groups of people, requires offering as much latitude as possible to adherents of different religious beliefs. However, I also wonder if such a level of accommodation requires a significant degree of common sentiment that is increasingly rare. The founding generation was, after all, overwhelmingly Christian and was without the dramatic differences in first principles that we now encounter in American society. Richard Weaver believed that "a culture is a shared thing, which cannot exist without consensus." He explained that a "culture is like an organic creation in that its constitution cannot tolerate more than a certain amount of what is foreign or extraneous. Certain outside values may be assimilated through transformation or reworking, but fundamentally unless a culture can maintain its own right to its own choices—its own inclusions and exclusions—it will cease." The question of whether there is a limit to how much difference of belief can exist within the same society is one of increasing pertinence.
Further, if religious liberty and freedom of conscience are, as Hall says, essentially Christian ideals, as they were in the founding era, what becomes of these concepts in a post-Christian world? Indeed, we see all around us today a notable lack of tolerance among people with non-traditional, and sometimes explicitly anti-Christian views. The question for me is not so much whether religious liberty is the proper political principle, but whether or not that political principle has cultural limitations beyond which it disintegrates.
Hall himself seems to answer this in the affirmative. Earlier in the book he quotes Jedediah Morse, a prominent minister and geographer, who in 1799 said, "All efforts to destroy the Foundation of our holy religion, ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness. Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican form of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them." How ironic it would be if, in neutering the effect of Christianity in social and civic life, the separationists were to destroy the very foundations of the liberties they (and we) enjoy.
Did America Have a Christian Founding? makes a very good case that, in attempting to separate religion and government, the separationists are departing from, rather than upholding, the principles of the American founding. In this way, the book is a smashing success. However, the gathering question, in an age in which Americans are as likely to denigrate as to venerate our own history, is to what degree the enemies of religion in American life even care about those principles anymore.
About the author
Ben is a contributing editor for Bastion Magazine. In addition to Bastion, his articles have appeared at a variety of online outlets, including the Tenth Amendment Center and The Patriot Post. He and his family live in the last refuge for traditional manners, the American Midwest.