Published April 26, 2022
In the aftermath of a disputed election and the January 6th Capitol riot, Americans have been treated to a rising chorus of breathless warnings about “Christian nationalism” and its “threat to American democracy” (to quote the subtitle for the latest book in the genre). Although a bit unsure about how precisely to define “Christian nationalism,” the critics can at least agree that Christian nationalists are those fanatics who dare to believe that the United States ought in some sense to be a Christian nation.
Sociologists have rushed forward to proffer dark explanations for this conviction, suggesting that Christian nationalists are uniquely obsessed with boundaries, power, and order—perhaps because they secretly want to exclude dark-skinned people and maintain “male authority over women’s bodies.”1 According to their own data, however, the explanation that “Christian nationalists” themselves give is essentially historical: “Our country was definitely founded on Christian principles.”2 Whatever we think of the prospects for “a Christian nation” in the present, this historical claim, at least, seems like it should be comparatively easy to evaluate.
And so it is. Much as modern secular scholars have tripped over one another in their eagerness to try and complicate the historical record of the role of religion in the American Founding, clinging like drowning men to the corpse of Thomas Jefferson as their beloved apostle of reason, the verdict of history is fairly incontestable. In his pithy and accessible recent book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, acclaimed historian Mark David Hall answers his own question with a resounding “Yes.” Skeptics might raise an eyebrow—after all, Hall is himself a conservative Christian, and the volume is published by Thomas Nelson—but this book represents simply a popular distillation of research that Hall has published over the years in hefty volumes by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and the like. Moreover, much as we like to reflexively resort to postmodern suspicion to dismiss as “biased” any conclusions we don’t like, sometimes facts are just facts. Hall’s volume dumps a brickload of facts on top of any efforts to run away from America’s Christian heritage.
That said, this volume is not simply an opportunity for conservative Christians to cheer on as “their side” wins another round of the long-running battle over the founders. It is also an invaluable opportunity to take stock of what exactly it might mean for America to have a “Christian founding,” and what a return to a more Christian nation might conceivably look like. Too many Christians today have bought into the idea that there is no way to have public Christianity without compromising private liberties. Some Christians, starting from this premise, dismiss any attempt to revive public religion as a benighted and oppressive “return to Christendom,” and say “good riddance” to an earlier era in which church and state stood in closer relation. Others, lamenting the modern privatization of religion, argue that only by a radical return to policies frankly unthinkable today could we revive any kind of Christian America. Hall, although he writes as a historian and avoids offering recommendations for faith in public life today, offers a convincing middle way, showing that much of the public Christianity we have lost in America could be revived without dramatically re-writing our constitutional order.
Defining a “Christian Founding”
Before surveying some of the evidence Hall marshals for a Christian founding, and then considering its implications for an authentically Christian public theology today, we should first attend to Hall’s careful definition of what he even means by a “Christian founding.” Lack of clarity on this point has led many historians astray—whether progressive historians trying to deny any Christian founding, or conservative ones like David Barton offering up one-sided and historically indefensible defenses of the orthodoxy of the founders.
On the loosest definition, notes Hall, we could simply ask whether the founders “identified themselves as Christians” (xxi) in their public profession. With almost zero exceptions, they did—even Jefferson went out of his way to keep his heterodoxy under wraps. This tells us something about the societal norms and expectations, to be sure, but still, says Hall, is “not particularly useful,” since many professions of faith are insincere; indeed, even today the large majority of American politicians present themselves as in some way Christian. On the tightest definition, then, we might ask whether the founders were all “sincere Christians.” Clearly not, but in many cases, how would one even go about determining the answer? Similarly, there is little point in asking whether the founders “acted like Christians” (xxii), since even the best Christians often do not live up to their principles. To be sure, someone who lived a life of conspicuous and apparently impenitent immorality would probably disqualify themselves from consideration as a “Christian founder,” but few meet that description.
A bit more interesting is the question of whether key founding fathers were “orthodox Christians” (xxi), articulating convictions clearly in line with historic Christianity (and generally magisterial Protestantism). In some cases, the answer is clearly “Yes” (e.g., John Jay, Roger Sherman), in others, clearly “No” (e.g., John Adams, Thomas Jefferson), and in other cases we simply do not have enough data to tell. What we can say fairly categorically, argues Hall in the face of a complacent chorus of contemporary scholarly opinion, is that there is almost no evidence for widespread Deism among the Founders. I’ll come back to this point in a moment.
The primary question that Hall sets out to answer in this volume, though, is none of the above. It is rather, “that the founders were influenced by Christian ideas” (xxii). To be sure, this is a slim volume, and a full consideration of this question would involve deep dives into centuries of medieval and Reformational political theology, as well as legal and constitutional history, showing how American laws and institutions presupposed Christian understandings of justice, freedom, church, and state. For the most part, this is not what Hall attempts (although such studies would only buttress his main theses). Rather, he sticks here (for the most part) to what we might call the low-hanging fruit—explicit appeals to the Scriptures, affirmations that God providentially guides human affairs and blesses those who are faithful to him, and convictions that the state should promote the public exercise of Christianity for the good of the society. All of these turn out to be so pervasive during the era of the Founding, among leaders high and low, north and south, in public laws and private letters, that the proponents of a secular founding are left clinging only to a few scattered scraps.
Key among these scraps, as already noted, is the idea that Enlightenment Deism pervaded the American founding. Deists denied the Trinity (and therefore, the divinity of Christ), as well God’s providential government of the world, reducing him to a Supreme Being who may have created the world, but otherwise leaves man to his devices. While a number of key founders may have quietly questioned the doctrine of the Trinity, the list of those who consistently denied God’s providential government of the world, Hall notes, is vanishingly small. Thomas Paine did, to be sure, but he was uniformly maligned in America for doing so, and saw his early influence immensely diminished thereby. Jefferson alone perhaps remained both a convinced deist and an influential statesman throughout his career, but only by assiduously concealing his heterodox convictions. Hall’s rejection of the myth of a Deist founding is deeply significant, not only because it cuts against the grain of so much sloppy scholarship, but because of its sweeping implications for public religion.
“Righteousness Exalteth a Nation”
For a consistent Deist, since God’s role in the world is confined to the past, it can have no political significance, neither shaping our present lives together nor offering incentives to moral behavior based on the prospect of future judgment. Denying any tie between religion and morality, or religion and national flourishing, then, a consistently Deistic regime would see no reason not to expurgate the trappings of Christianity from public life and sever every tie between church and state. This was the policy of the French Revolution. If scholars should ever want to know what a Deistic founding would look like, by way of comparison, they need only look across the pond to events nearly contemporaneous to the American founding. The contrast, however, is stark. As Hall repeatedly demonstrates, nearly every significant American leader of the founding era was convinced that morality and national flourishing do depend on religion, and the Christian religion at that; the few who thought otherwise, unlike their French counterparts, felt the need to keep those thoughts to themselves.
A handful of quotations from those that Hall amasses are sufficient to demonstrate the point. Benjamin Rush, although a freethinker by comparison to many founders, wrote that the “only Foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty….[T]he religion I meant to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament” (31-32). Acting on the basis of this conviction, George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation begins, “Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…” (109). And John Adams’s 1799 call for a national fast goes further, inviting Americans to
call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer…that He would interpose to arrest the progress of that impiety and licentiousness in principle and practice so offensive to Himself and so ruinous to mankind; that He would make us deeply sensible that ‘righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people’ (112).
Now, the skeptic might object that Washington and Adams were “just saying that,” that they didn’t really believe it. And to be sure, we know that Adams, at least, privately voiced his doubts on the subject of the “Great Mediator and Redeemer.” But this is to some extent beside the point. It is clear that these men, though sometimes themselves privately unsure on the details of Christian orthodoxy, were at least convinced: (a) that God exists and “governs the affairs of men” (Benjamin Franklin, quoted p. 4); (b) that morality depends on him; and (c) that the Christian Scriptures were the best attestation of his will. On this basis, they further concluded: (d) that a moral people should be a religious people; (e) that in particular, they ought to respect and follow the central tenets of Christianity; and (f) that nations that did so would be blessed and flourish. Even had all the founding fathers privately been heretics, these convictions alone would have sufficed to undergird a robust public and political Christianity, such as that reflected in the laws and constitutions of the early US states, and in presidential pronouncements like those above.
Jefferson might have remarked that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” but few of his countrymen, Hall demonstrates, could agree with such a jarring claim. Nor were Jefferson’s (and his colleague Madison’s) views on the separation of church and state widely shared or particularly influential, seven decades of First Amendment jurisprudence notwithstanding. In this, one of the most striking sections of the book (chapter 3), Hall can scarcely conceal his exasperation: Justices, academics, and others who want to argue that the framers of the First Amendment were influenced by the Virginia Statute [for Religious Freedom, authored by Madison and Jefferson]…need to provide evidence to support their claim. In this case, the evidence is slight indeed” (63). While the period 1780-1833 did witness a steady move toward the formal disestablishment of state churches, most of this, Hall notes, took place against a background conviction that states should continue to recognize, attest, and promote a generic Protestant Christianity, which would continue to play a decisive role in their legal regimes (such as, for instance, the widespread continuance of Sabbath laws).
Reviving a Christian America Today?
So what does all this mean for today? Hall writes as a historian, and for the most part disclaims such normative concerns. But one lesson looms large from the pages of his text: being a Christian nation is not so hard after all. Don’t get me wrong; to return America to anything like the political culture of the Founding era would require a profound and sustained shift of direction, one requiring perhaps a new Great Awakening or second Reformation. It is not something that any of us should expect to see in our lifetimes. That said, it need not involve some kind of radical constitutional revolution, or turning back the clock to a medieval conception of church-state relations. Nor need it involve a reversal of most of the privileges of religious liberty and freedom of conscience that have been extended in the past two centuries of American jurisprudence. Hall makes this last point particularly clear in his final chapter: public norms absolutely can co-exist with case-by-case private exemptions, and a desire to protect the latter should not lead us to hastily abandon the former. What then would it take for America to again be a Christian nation? Well, to start talking like it is.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the evidence that Hall marshals for a Christian founding is how much of it is rhetorical—how much of it consists in the willingness of public figures to publicly declare the importance of Christianity for virtue, freedom, and national flourishing. The Washington and Adams declarations above are a case in point. Who can imagine any American president today issuing such a proclamation? And yet, what constitutional bar is there to them doing so (given that they were only issuing recommendations, not making executive orders)? Of course, words can be merely performative—in the disparaging sense of something done hypocritically for show. But they can also be speech-acts, truly performative—in the sense of utterances that actually perform and bring about in some measure that which they attest. To be sure, a husband can say “I love you” to his wife without meaning it, but the reality is far more likely to present, and to be strengthened, the more often he says the words. Just so, the mere public attestation that a nation depends on God and must turn to him is apt in some degree to induce just such a turning. Realities that we keep to ourselves are liable to wither into forgetfulness and non-existence; realities that we keep on our lips—and especially that those who speak for the nation keep on their lips—are apt to have fresh life breathed into them.
The skeptic is liable to rejoin, “Well, Washington and Adams could say such things because they could count on a Christian populace, which no public leader now could; thus, we have to first renew the hearts of the people before we can think of voicing a public Christianity again.” Some truths, perhaps, cannot be spoken unless there is an audience ready to hear them. And yet the cause-and-effect can flow in the other direction too. Sometimes it is precisely by virtue of the willingness of great leaders to speak unpopular truths that those truths again become thinkable by their citizens. Hall’s book thus suggests the possibility that in all our desperate efforts to turn this country around, sometimes we Christians overthink things—sometimes with the best of intentions, and sometimes simply for lack of courage. Rather than constantly debating how to start framing Christian laws and arguing for Christian court decisions (and, often as not, carefully couching our arguments in religiously neutral terms), we should just start casually and unapologetically talking again as if certain basic assumptions of our forefathers are in fact true: God governs the nations; he rewards those who seek him; freedom and equality rest on the tenets of Christianity; and government cannot be morally neutral. Perhaps we will soon all find ourselves locked up in an asylum, but perhaps—just perhaps—we shall see our people start to awake from their somnambulance.
*Image Credit: Pexels
- Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God (Oxford: OUP, 2020.
- Taking America Back for God, 35.