Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth. Mark David Hall. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019.
The argument over what it means to be “American” predates the War of Independence, but this fundamental question of identity has lost none of its gravity. It is especially contentious at present, when social and political polarization has sharpened dramatically with disturbing consequences. For much of American history, even as the Country became more culturally and ethnically diverse, the argument took place against a backdrop of considerable religious unity. Yes, religious fervor and church attendance may shift from time to time or between groups, and “civil religion” may challenge orthodox teaching, but the social and cultural dominance of Christianity was taken for granted. There have, of course, been moments of tension and intolerance between denominations among American Protestants as well as the shameful periods of hostility toward Catholics. But the underlying assumptions of the Christian faith provided a common ground across generations – even during the Civil War. To be sure, one does not have to be Christian to be American, nor have the two words ever been synonymous, but American politics, history, and culture is incomprehensible without reference to the Christian tradition.
That common ground has shifted quite dramatically in the last few decades. In the recent American Worldview Inventory 2021 from the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, researchers observed the following:
The dominant worldview of all four adult generations in the United States is Syncretism—the mash-up of various worldviews that provides each individual with a customized understanding of, and response to life. In total, 88% of Americans have Syncretism, rather than a substantively coherent and recognizable worldview such as postmodernism or secular humanism, as their dominant worldview. A large majority of each generation relies on a syncretistic worldview when making their life choices. Overall, 89% of Millennials, 86% of Gen Xers, 83% of Boomers, and 86% of Builders have a syncretistic worldview (see CRC’s report on Syncretism here).
These patterns are not new, but the speed at which even a residual Christianity has been either diluted or abandoned is breathtaking. What the CRC calls “syncretism” is increasingly unrecognizable as even marginally Christian in any traditional sense. Are Americans prepared for the consequences?
Shadi Hamid at The Altantic reflected last month on America’s sharp “secular” turn, wondering if those cheering the country’s turn away from Christianity would be surprised and disturbed by what replaces it:
[I]f secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like…Though the United States wasn’t founded as a Christian nation, Christianity was always intertwined with America’s self-definition. Without it, Americans—conservatives and liberals alike—no longer have a common culture upon which to fall back.” (Atlantic, April 2021 p. 10)
Hamid does not so much offer a response to this problem, but he rightly fears its consequences. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries are riddled with the slaughter of political religions and the destruction wrought by what Russell Kirk called, the “Drug of Ideology.” Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others recognized the horrifying potential in detaching a society from its faith and traditions, replacing it, not with more “rational” or “reasonable” politics, but with an ideology and followers more fanatical than any religion.
Why, then, has so much ink been spilled trying to undermine claims of America’s Christian heritage and identity? There is a “cottage industry” of scholars and others attempting to poke “holes” in the so-called “Christian Founding Myth,” by asserting that the Founding Fathers were desists, enlightenment rationalists, and proponents of the “strict separation of Church and state.” One finds these claims repeated in textbooks for American Government and History, in documentaries, and in the speeches of public officials.
Perhaps these efforts are inspired by fear of Christian intolerance, if not of outright “theocracy.” Adam Shapiro in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, recently argued that sympathy for “originalism” in Constitutional interpretation is essentially a theocratic position:
Originalism combines a Christian nationalist view of the United States’ founding as a prophetic and holy act with notions of the inerrant truth of divinely inspired texts that have evolved over the past century. To its practitioners and supporters, it encodes a religious vision of America that has come to the fore in other areas of politics and law. In short, originalism isn’t “dumb”; it’s theocratic.
For Shapiro, this observation ought to discourage the marginalization of religious studies, especially in law school; otherwise, lawyers may be ill-equipped to understand and resist a fundamentalist and theocratic originalism apparently animating Trump-appointed justices especially. Shapiro’s breathtakingly inaccurate and superficial summary of originalism describes a jurisprudence that would be more at home in The Handmaid’s Tale. These dramatic claims of “Christian authoritarianism” and “Christian Nationalism,” however are only bolstered by troubling conflations of “Biblical” and “Constitutional,” with projects like the God Bless the USA Bible. It’s no wonder I see the same latent fear of religious tyranny in my students’ papers. It floods their social media accounts and textbooks, cultivating an imagination resistant to anything other than the strictest separation of church and state. Those who try to “secularize” the American Founding and those who treat it as Divinely inspired would do well to take the advice I offer to my students: do the reading.
When it comes to the American Founding, Mark David Hall has done more of the reading than most. For several decades he has labored relentlessly against those trying to misrepresent the role of Christianity in the formative years of the United States. Did America Have a Christian Founding? (2019) is Mark’s attempt to summarize and deliver that work to a broader audience within and beyond the academy, and he succeeds brilliantly. The book is immensely readable, well-organized, and concise without sacrificing nuance.
Hall’s argument is quite straightforward: attempts to de-Christianize the American Founding are based on selective, incomplete, and inaccurate engagement with the primary sources, often taken out of context. These efforts, he argues, leave Constitutional interpretation open to ideological abuse in ways detrimental to all Americans, Christian or otherwise. He is not, as he says, suggesting that “contemporary problems can be solved simply by asking, What would the founders do? But it does suggest that we do well to consider the principles that animated the men and women who helped win American independence and created our constitutional republic.” (xviii)
Hall contends that America did indeed have a “Christian Founding,” but he rightly nuances what that means. He wants to avoid grounding his case in overly simplistic explanations, such as the indisputable observation that Americans in the late eighteenth century overwhelmingly identified as Christian. But he goes even further, saying it would also be unwise to assert a Christian founding on the basis of the Founders’ “sincerity” and “orthodoxy,” which would require excessive speculation and more unambiguous source material. He does, though, “demonstrate that there is no evidence to support the popular claim that many or most of the founders rejected orthodox Christianity or were deists.” (xxi) He also rejects a strategy of grounding the Christian Founding argument in the public and private lives of the Founders, which only becomes a fight over imperfections and inconsistencies. “If the standard of being a Christian is moral perfection,” Mark writes, “no one has ever been a Christian.” (xxii) Instead, Hall pursues a modest, but profoundly consequential strategy: “A final possibility for the meaning of a ‘Christian founding’ is that the founders were influenced by Christian ideas. I believe this is the most reasonable way to approach the question, Did America have a Christian founding?” (xxii) This strategy is indeed reasonable with important implications for Constitutional law and interpretation.
Hall is not asserting that Christianity was the only influence on the American Founders, since such a position would be similarly at odds with the sources. But if one appreciates the social, cultural, and historical context of the American colonies and the first few decades of independence, it becomes clear that the Christian tradition was immensely important. It colored the underlying assumptions, language, and reasoning of the major and minor figures, including those who, often privately, resisted or rejected orthodox Christianity.
Hall takes up this rejection of Christianity in Chapter 1, and specifically the myth of Founding deists. But after examining figures such as Jefferson and Adams – who privately rejected orthodox Christian teaching – he argues: “If deism includes the idea that ‘God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs,’ then the number of civic leaders in the American founding who were deists may be only one, Ethan Allen; and other than his significant military victory at Fort Ticonderoga, his role in the American founding was minimal.” (13) While some scholars may retort that the source material belies a distant and vague sense of God in a “Deist,” vernacular, this too is not borne out by the Founders’ public and private writing. Even Jefferson publicly writes of a God that’s “active in the affairs of men and nations.” (15) One may concede brief moments of apostasy and heresy among a few Founders, but extending these examples as generalization to all the others would be poor historiography. Indeed, critics of the “Christian Founding Myth” often accuse its adherents of reading the Founders in their own image, but the secular reading is not at all innocent of the same charge.
What about the Constitution itself? Mention of God seems absent entirely without even a token reference. Is the Constitution wholly secular? The anti-federalists and other Founders feared this, and the Framers did not retain the more explicit reference to God found in the Articles of Confederation. Sure, Article VII of the Constitution refers to “the year of our Lord,” but over-relying on that would be a relatively weak argument. Hall, instead, shows how the Constitution relies more on distinctively Christian assumptions about human nature, natural law, and rights to ground their defense of republican government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. These insights are not at all – or not solely – products of a secular Enlightenment. Their roots are older and, where necessary, the Founders married the more recent observations to distinctively Christian teachings. Hall then takes up the issues of slavery, the lack of an established church, and the banning of religious tests for public office. He concludes Chapter 2, writing:
The founders drew from their Christian convictions to design a constitutional system that would protect the rights of all Americans—religious or not. Our civic leaders, and especially Supreme Court justices, have turned some of these convictions on their heads. Some things have improved dramatically since the eighteenth century—the abolition of slavery and eradication of Jim Crow legislation being among the most obvious advances. But in other areas, such as the protection of innocent life and the conviction that the national government is one of limited, enumerated powers, our abandonment of the founders’ convictions is a cause for great concern. (54)
Hall’s efforts are not intellectual archaeology for its own sake, to idealize the American Founding, or to sidestep obvious departures from Christian teaching. He shows not only that the secular reading of the Founding and the Constitution is historically bankrupt, but that modern, de-Christianized readings of the Constitution do more to obscure and corrupt, rather than elucidate, the meaning of the text. The result could quite easily be less freedom and less tolerance for all Americans rather than the religious tyranny some fear.
Chapter 3 and 4 confront the claim that the Founders, especially Jefferson and Madison, favored strict separation and no public support for religious institutions. The foil here is the argument of Justices Black and Rutledge in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which is overly reliant on Jefferson and Madison for interpreting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As Hall argues, such a course of interpretation “is flawed in multiple ways. Most critically, it ignores the contributions that literally hundreds of other founders made to drafting, debating, and ratifying the First Amendment.” (60) But historians and justices rely excessively and selectively on Madison and Jefferson as if they represent all those who had a hand in the creation of the First Amendment. As Hall argues:
Jefferson and Madison wanted a greater degree of separation between church and state than most of their colleagues. But even they did not embrace the sort of strict separation advocated today by groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Even if they did, there is simply no valid reason for reading the First Amendment as if it were solely a product of their two minds. And it certainly shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists and Madison’s “Detached Memoranda,” both of which were penned years after the amendment was ratified. Moreover, when one turns to other founders, including men intimately involved in drafting and ratifying the First Amendment, it becomes evident that Jefferson and Madison do not represent the founding generation’s approach to church-state relations. (84-85)
Supreme Court justices and others have been ostensibly committed, at times, to interpreting the Constitution in its historical context, but they’ve often done so selectively – if not suspiciously. To be sure, Hall argues, “Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution does not give Congress the power to directly promote religion or morality. Even if it did, many members of the First Federal Congress would have declined to do so, believing that any such legislation should come from state or local governments.” But, as he shows in Chapter 4, “within its constitutional powers, Congress and the other branches of the federal government did not hesitate to encourage Christian practices.” (108)
Hall’s treatment of the early Congress’ support of Christianity is particularly interesting, and it represents a salutary strategy of trying to anticipate objections and counter-arguments, such as those made in reference to “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States” in 1790 or the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797. Indeed, Hall seems to know his critics as well as he knows the Founders. A broader view of the sources reveals far more frequent support for religion from Congress, and especially from the state governments. The implication is that ”[a]n originalist understanding of the First Amendment permits the national and state governments to promote religion, and even to specifically encourage and support Christianity.” Had he stopped there, a secular reader might suspect a subtle move toward more religious “establishment” or the theocracy of Shapiro’s nightmares. That is not at all Hall’s intent. He continues:
America is far more diverse than it was in the eighteenth century, and our civic leaders represent all citizens. So political prudence and civic friendship suggest that it is best for presidents and other civic leaders to use language that unites rather than divides Americans. And when legislatures choose to make benefits available to religious organizations, they should not discriminate among religious communities, so long as these groups are qualified to receive them. With all of this, the historical record is clear: in no manner did the founders conceive of a government from which religion—Christianity above all—was precluded. In fact, the founders believed it is necessary for the two to be intermingled and mutually supportive. (119-120)
Indeed, as Mark goes on to show, the Founders at the national and state governments alike believed in religious liberty and support for all faiths, embracing accommodations for religious dissent in statutory law. Reviving a Christian reading of the Constitution is not a recipe for theocracy and intolerance. It is not an excuse to abandon “political prudence and civic friendship.” It provides, instead, ample justification for defending a limited government and protecting the “sacred rights of conscience” of all Americans.
The historical reality of America’s Christian Founding can be maintained without racing toward ideology, theocracy, established churches, crusades, religious tests, and illiberal politics, but it also challenges us to consider the cost of abandoning America’s roots in a distinctively Christian imagination. Secularizing the Constitution will not result in more rationality and freedom, but to illiberal political “religions” arguing about their fidelity to a phantom Founding.