Founding Deists and Other Unicorns

We need to know what the word plethora means before we can say we have a plethora of piñatas. So, too, we cannot consider whether or not America had a Christian founding without having an idea of what the phrase Christian founding actually means. At the start of Did America Have a Christian Founding?, Mark David Hall rightly analyzes the question his book asks. What determines whether or not America had a Christian founding? Hall considers a variety of options. Did the members of the founding generation identify themselves as Christians? Almost everyone did, with the exception of about two thousand Jews. But that doesn’t tell us much. People can be bad believers, or they can be good Christians self-consciously founding a secular regime. Sincerity of belief can be difficult to judge. Appealing to people’s practices only gives us a partial view. And there’s a theological issue, too. At what point does a historical figure become a non-Christian due to his privately held unorthodox beliefs, even if he publicly identifies himself as a Christian?

Hall sidesteps these thorny questions about people—though he has shown an ability to tackle them well elsewhere—to focus on the ideas themselves. Were the founders influenced by Christian ideas? That’s the question Hall wants to pursue. And his answer is yes:

Book after book has been written about whether the founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and so on. I contend that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the founding generation.

Moreover, Hall holds that “to the extent to which America’s founders utilized these thinkers, they borrowed ideas or arguments that were compatible with orthodox Christianity, and, in fact, were often developed before the Enlightenment by indisputably Christian thinkers.”

The temptation in a book like this one is to make exciting claims to gain an audience, while playing fast and loose with history, or to do such minute technical work that even specialists have to drink coffee to press on. Hall’s sense of balance between these two extremes is perfect.

Bibles, Bibles Everywhere

No one should argue about whether or not the Constitution contains the word God (it doesn’t) or whether it assumes certain religious practices (it does). However, we can and should debate the source of the Constitution’s ideas.

The Enlightenment is, of course, a heavyweight contender for the title of Most Influential to the Constitution. Matthew Stewart, for example, claims that Benedict de Spinoza was the architect of the political philosophy that flowered in the United States, and that John Locke was the acceptable face of the movement. Hall calls such an adventure in revisionist history “pure fantasy.”

Few scholars claim Spinoza for the American founding. Many more claim Locke, and so, Hall turns his attention to him. In a sentence, the reports of Locke’s influence have been greatly exaggerated. Donald S. Lutz’s survey of 15,000 works from 1760 to 1805 says only 2.9% of citations reference Locke, in contrast to 34% of all citations referencing the Bible. (And Hall notes that, if anything, “Lutz undercounts references to the Bible because he excludes from his sample political sermons that do not contain references to secular authors. If he had included these sermons, references to the Bible would have absolutely dwarfed any other grouping of texts.”) This difference in frequency should not surprise us: Locke’s Second Treatise was first published in the United States in 1773 and was only republished in 1937—hardly what one would expect for the seminal political work by a leading figure of the British Enlightenment who was supposed to have substantial influence on the American founding. “If Locke’s works were late to arrive on America’s shores,” Hall writes, “the Bible was virtually omnipresent from the first days of the Puritan settlement.”

Let’s consider one concrete case in order to illustrate Hall’s method. In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a bill to tax individuals for the support of their local churches. James Madison wrote his celebrated Memorial in the summer of 1785 in the hopes of preventing the bill’s passage that autumn. On a standard telling of the American story, an Enlightenment Madison saved the country from religious fanatics. Is that, in fact, what happened?

Not at all. Hall notes that “an earlier evangelical petition” received far more signatures, by a margin of 4,899 to 1,552 (out of 10,929 Virginians who signed any petition on the matter). That petition said Henry’s bill was “contrary to the spirit of the Gospel” and that the church was not helped “when Constantine first established Christianity by human laws.” Lest we think Madison’s Memorial spawned the other petitions, including this evangelical one, Hall notes that the evangelical petition was written at least seventh months before Madison wrote his Memorial. Furthermore, Madison’s Memorial itself includes “a number of overtly religious arguments,” suggesting a broader purview than the unaccompanied Enlightenment. And let’s be clear: almost half the Virginians who signed a petition signed the evangelical one, thereby endorsing its Christian appeals for religious freedom. The Memorial by itself, based on its share of signatories, could not have carried the day. The evangelical petition, all by itself, could have.

Why? Concerns for religious liberty did not commence in the 1780s. William Penn, writing in 1675, said “force makes hypocrites, ’tis persuasion only that makes converts.” Though Quakers could not testify in criminal trials in England until 1828, Quakers could do so in Rhode Island as early as 1647, due to an enacted law that allowed them to offer “solemn profession or testimony” instead of an oath. To be clear, Spinoza and Locke were teenagers in 1647; though undeniably precocious, they were hardly the inspiration for Rhode Island’s religious accommodation.

In addition to concrete cases, Hall considers the question of broad support for Christianity itself. That makes sense. After all, a basket of disparate ideas does not a Christian founding make. So Hall considers the founders’ self-conscious support of religion. Following James Hutson, he delivers a founders’ syllogism. Here are the premises: republican government requires a moral citizenry; morality needs religion. The conclusion is thus that republican government requires religion. And Hall goes further. “When America’s founders spoke about ‘religion,’” he writes, “virtually all of them—even those most influenced by the Enlightenment—meant Christianity.” He quotes Chief Justice John Marshall to great effect: “Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity.”

Not everyone believed the syllogism, of course. But few championing a godless founding would find them all comfortable bedfellows. “For instance, in one remarkable case, slavery led John Rutledge of South Carolina to reject the almost universal consensus that religion and morality should inform public policy.” And, besides, most founders did endorse the syllogism: “Examples of founders insisting that religion is necessary for morality, and that both religion and morality are necessary for republican government, could be multiplied almost indefinitely.”

Eight Men Do Not a Founding Make

Hall identifies eight great founders regularly claimed for deism: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Allen, and Paine. Hall gives us plenty of reasons to question the alleged deism of most of these men. But he observes, quite persuasively, that even if these founders were all deists, they still had to persuade (from a secular point of view) the vast unenlightened hordes clinging to God and their guns. Eight men—even eight great and influential men—still represent a minuscule segment of the national population.

More importantly, these eight represent only a tiny sample of the people we call founders. Hall works through the founders by denominational affiliation, noting that “there is little reason to doubt, and much evidence to indicate” their orthodoxy. From Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, on the Reformed side, to John Jay and Patrick Henry on the Anglican side (just to name a few), Hall offers a laundry list of Christian founders.

By contrast, in the founding period, only Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine offered defenses of deism. Hall argues persuasively that Allen’s Reason: The Only Oracle of Man exercised little influence (selling less than 200 copies) and that Paine’s Age of Reason received almost universal scorn. Hall offers a veritable who’s who of founders that criticized Paine’s book, and he finds Paine’s death suggestive of the kind of reception Americans gave his ideas: “When he passed away in 1809,” Hall writes, “he had to be buried on a farm because even the tolerant Quakers refused to let him be interred in a church cemetery; only six mourners came to his funeral.”

And the Great Eight did not impose the Constitution. States ratified it. Lest one object that the rubes of state governments can be ignored from constitutional analysis, Hall notes that “most of America’s more cosmopolitan founders also served in state governments, and many less famous but still influential founders did as well.”

Well, what were these states up to in the late 18th century? Let’s consider one representative from the New England, mid-Atlantic, and southern colonies. First, New England: By 1784 Connecticut’s revised statues promoted Christianity explicitly. Church attendance was mandatory; Sabbath breakers were punished. Each family had to possess a Bible; each office holder had to taken an oath with God as a witness; and each family that adopted “an Indian Child” had to instruct the child in “the principles of the Christian Religion.” If making you teach your adopted kid Christianity doesn’t count as state support of religion, what does?

What about Pennsylvania? Its 1776 state constitution promoted religious liberty but also had the following religious test for office: “I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.” Leaders of a synagogue petitioned for a revision to this test to include Jews; the issue was tabled, but they succeeded in a less restrictive religious test when the state rewrote its constitution. (Hall notes that the North Carolina state constitution still does not permit atheists to hold public office, though the provision has been unenforceable since 1961.)

Finally, consider Georgia. Abraham Baldwin played a role in the relationship between church and state in Georgia and also in the drafting of the First Amendment. The University of Georgia—founded in 1785—was the first state-funded university in the nation, and Baldwin became its first president. The statue required that professors and administrators had to be “of the Christian religion,” but students should not be excluded because of “speculative sentiments in religion, or being of a different religious profession.” Many Christian colleges and universities retain the same policy today.

The Halls of Monticello

Hall does not cherry-pick the founding, finding juicy little tidbits of Christianity here and there while ignoring the Enlightenment bark. On the contrary, he considers interesting counterexamples to his overall thesis, and Did America Have a Christian Founding? is a better book as a result. I’ll consider two possible counterexamples to Hall’s thesis that America had a Christian founding.

First, if America had a Christian founding, then why did undeniably important founder Thomas Jefferson articulate and defend a “wall of separation” between church and state?

Hall’s answer: Jefferson’s “wall of separation” is a phrase from an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. The phrase itself did not originate with Jefferson, and he used it only once. “Even more remarkably,” Hall writes, “two days after he penned it, Jefferson attended church services in the US Capitol, where he heard John Leland, the great Baptist minister and an opponent of established churches, preach.” So Jefferson’s understanding of the wall of separation included a sitting president attending a church service in the US Capitol.

Hall makes a convincing case that we should see this attendance as a genuine reflection of how Jefferson understood the relationship between church and state. Years earlier, in 1776, Jefferson proposed a national seal with an image of the Hebrews safely crossing the Red Sea under God’s protection—signified by a pillar of fire—and a depiction of Pharaoh embracing destruction as the waters turned back upon him. Jefferson’s proposed motto for the new nation was not “We are all Lockeans now” but “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Hall notes that “Franklin’s proposal was virtually identical to Jefferson’s.” Both Jefferson and Franklin would have given us a national seal that invoked the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Finally, in 1803—the year after the Danbury letter—Jefferson sent a treaty for the Kaskaskia Indians to the Senate stipulating, in Hall’s words, “federal funds to support a Catholic priest and to build a church.” So Jefferson and his wall of separation seem to be more comfortable with the use of federal funds for religious purposes than many Christian conservatives today—a surprising result.

The Shores of Tripoli

Let’s consider one more proposed counterexample. If America had a Christian founding, then why does the eleventh article of the nation’s 1797 treaty with Tripoli says that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” so that “no pretext, arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries”?

Isn’t this a smoking gun? Hall says America had a Christian founding, but an early American treaty explicitly denies such a claim! In response, Hall appeals to context: After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the British navy understandably stopped protecting American merchant ships, so North African pirates captured American ships and enslaved American citizens or held them hostage. Hall proposes that Americans viewed the language of the treaty as a practical maneuver rather than an actual assessment, in order to undercut the claim that the pirates could justify their activities on religious grounds. After all, no public protests erupted in opposition to this article, which is what one would expect from some quarters if people took it seriously (or even read it).

In an endnote that should have been in the body text, Hall adds, “Four years after the treaty was ratified, Secretary of War James McHenry wrote to the secretary of the treasury that he was outraged by Article 11. Perhaps this is one reason it was excised from future versions of the treaty.” That’s an important point: McHenry was a founder. He signed the US Constitution and served as the nation’s secretary of war under the first two presidents. Unlike the vast majority of Americans, he would have read a treaty dealing with piracy; after all, he was secretary of war. He protested the eleventh article, and it was removed. True, at least one person wanted to claim that America was not founded on the Christian religion, but that claim was not allowed to stand. The clause was removed.

A Lingering Question

Why does this matter? It’s important to get the history right, of course, but Hall’s concern is more than historical. In today’s fights over religious establishment, liberty, and accommodation, our assumption that America did not have a Christian founding leads us to embrace the wrong conclusions—or perhaps just assumptions—about what the founders would have wanted religion in our public life to look like. When we consider state aid to religious schools, Hall wants us to think about the founding of the University of Georgia; when we discuss the permissibility of the phrase under God in the pledge, we should remember that atheists at the time of the founding could not hold public office; and when we contemplate whether or not bakers and florists should get religious accommodations, we should think about the pacifist Quakers being exempted from military service even as a fledgling nation fought for its existence. Hall’s point is not to force the University of Georgia to hire only Christian professors or to re-institute laws against breaking the Sabbath. But he does want us to practice more balance than we do have when we consider these contested issues. Opponents of prayer in school, for example, may think they are defending the American constitutional order against religious zealots who want to reject the founding principles of the nation. Hall has shown, quite decisively I think, that they are simply mistaken.

I would like to close by offering a serious question: Has Hall demonstrated that America had a Christian founding, or has he shown only that Christianity should be included as one of the many intellectual streams coming together in the American experiment?

He has unquestionably shown that Christianity contributes to the founding as one among many, perhaps even the first among equals. But I think he wants to make a stronger claim for Christianity than that, however. Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine an uninhabited area of land next to the United States but neither part of that nation nor any other. An investigative team is sent, and here’s what they learn: Church attendance in this newfound land is absolutely mandatory; Sabbath breaking is punished; office holders must affirm the divine inspiration of the Scriptures; professors at the one publicly funded university must be Christians. Upon learning this news, most Americans would think we had discovered not only a Christian nation but a Christian nation of the most extreme type. Well, if we could travel back in time, Hall perhaps would tell us, that’s precisely what we would find at the time of the American founding. Notice here, though, that we are talking about Christian practice and not about Christian ideas (though we don’t have to separate them, of course).

What about Christian ideas? When I say that something is a Christian book, for example, I probably mean there’s something in the book that is exclusively Christian—that is, there is at least one idea that comes from Christianity and cannot come from anywhere else. Now the book doesn’t have to be a commentary on the Bible or a collection of sermons to count as a Christian book, but surely referencing the Bible or biblical ideas doesn’t by itself make a book Christian. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan does not, in my mind, count as a Christian book. But Edwin Curley’s Hackett edition of Hobbes’s work has an index of biblical citations, and the Cambridge edition by Richard Tuck includes an index of proper names—from Aaron to Zimri.

But perhaps the requirement that a founding is Christian only if it has ideas that are uniquely Christian is too rigorous. After all, as Hall smartly notes, the Lord’s Prayer is Christian—Jesus gave it to his disciples—but the text of the prayer does not reference the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, or the Bible—or even Jesus himself.

Indeed, Christianity may be seen as less influential now because Christian ideas were so wildly popular then, with the result that we find Christian ideas everywhere without recognizing their provenance. If so, then we are like the Europeans, and not the Americans, described by Benjamin Franklin in his 1781 letter to Samuel Cooper:

It was not necessary in New England, where everybody reads the Bible, and is acquainted with Scripture phrases, that you should note the texts from which you took them; but I have observed in England as well as in France, that verses and expressions taken from the sacred writings, and not known to be such, appear very strange and awkward to some readers; and I shall therefore in my edition take the liberty of marking the quoted texts in the margin.

Hall does Franklin’s work for the present day, making notes in the margins of history so we can understand the significance of what our founders wrote.

And this book is not just for Americans cheering the idea of a Christian founding. It can be put to good use by those disturbed by some trends in Christian America. Indeed, if the idea of a religious founding makes your secular self break out in hives, you should buy Hall’s book, memorize it, and give your copy to a friend. As Hall shows, the best way to persuade Christian people to believe in the ideals of the American founding is to make a Christian case for them.