Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fischer on America's non-Christian Founding

Claude S. Fischer, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley has a new book out where he makes his case for America's non-Christian Founding.

He writes a small post on his thesis at the Immanent Frame.

A taste:

The impression of great piety among the settlers is a common view of the past, probably rooted in the outsize role that the Puritans play in our mental pictures of Early America. The Puritans, however, were an odd lot in America—the exception, not the rule. (They are a prominent exception, thanks to the cultural power of their New England descendants and the voluminous records they left. One historian has complained that we “know more about the Puritans than any sane person should want to know.”)

Over the wider American landscape, however, colonists were notably “unchurched” and “un-Christian.” Scattered around in separate households (unlike the Puritans who concentrated in villages), most Americans had no church to go to and little connection to what we would call organized religion. Even where there were churches to attend, many went either irregularly or simply because the church was one of the rare places—along with the tavern—to see people in a sparsely-developed society.

Stepahnie Wolf, in her study of Revolutionary-era Germantown, Pennsylvania, estimated that only about half of the residents attended church, and that is probably a high watermark, since the community was urban and well-off, and the period was one of religious enthusiasm.

Such waves of enthusiasm (“Awakenings”) in some places and at some times rallied some people to faith, but the clergy generally despaired of the heathens who had settled the new continent. One minister trying to save souls in the American heartland in the early 1800s wrote that “. . . there are American families in this part of the country who never saw a bible, nor heard of Jesus Christ . . . the whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death.”

Most early Americans were not believers in the sense that affirming Christians are today. They were likelier to understand spells, potions, and omens than theological doctrines. Almanacs sold briskly in part because they provided guides to the occult. It took a lot of hard missionary work to displace magic with Christ.


As John Fea points out, his thesis isn't exactly novel.

Of course such an argument is not a new. Jon Butler made it in Awash in a Sea of Faith. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and others have made it as well. The Founding was not a Christian event, but clearly America had become a "Christian nation" or "evangelical empire" or "a spiritual hothouse" by the early 19th century.


Regarding the argument, I'd like to see more sociological data and analysis on Church membership and attendance. It may well be that mid to late 18th Century Americans were a distinctly un-churched people, full of nominal Christians. Or, these figures may be lowballs.

I have concluded that the "Christian Nation" thesis as the evangelicals tend to promote it is bunk. Evangelicals have a tight definition for what it means to be a "Christian" (not just orthodox, but "born again," regenerate), and there is not a shred of evidence that virtually all of the Founders and populace save a handful were "Christians" in this sense. In fact, there's no evidence that a simple majority of the FFs or the populace were "Christians" in this sense. Plenty of orthodox Anglicans, for instance, would not meet this standard (neither would Roman Catholics, who are also orthodox, but much fewer in number than Anglicans in 18th Century America).

And evangelicals, especially, should understand this as they teach the narrow gate.

Were a majority of the population/FFs "orthodox" in a way that not just evangelicals, but also Roman Catholics, Anglicans could pass (for instance, following Gregg Frazer's 10 point test for late 18th Century Christianity, or perhaps an even broader sense that requires simple belief in Nicene orthodoxy, not necessarily in doctrines like original sin or eternal damnation)?

Perhaps. But there are still reasons to doubt. This kind of orthodoxy dominated religious institutions by tradition and entrenchment. But, as noted, a great deal of FFs and members of the populace were affiliated with said churches in a formal or nominal sense without believing in their official doctrines like the Trinity or that the biblical canon is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.

11 comments:

Pinky said...

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As per usual, J.R. makes some good points.
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But, I think you are judging Colonial America and the Founding Era with present day perspectives on what America must have been.
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Yet, I'd venture there is a relatively similar way of looking at things. Maybe it's true that most of the people were unchristian in the sense that today's Evangelicals make their claims. But it seems that "rabble" didn't have the vote in the republic. The ones that voted were, my guess is, for the most part christianized and probably mostly influenced by some level of Calvinist thinking.
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Same as today.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

My problem with Fischer, et al., is they take either the arguments of a fringe [the D. James Kennedys, etc.]---if not creating a total strawman like "'some' evangelicals claim blahblah"---and "rebut" them.

But this tells us only what the Founding was not. When the "secular" case is made---when they even bother to try---it rests on Jefferson's private correspondence, the Danbury letter, the Treaty of Tripoli, and very little else. [Oh yeah, and the "Godless" Constitution, completely ignoring the prevalence of religion at the state level.]

As for Gregg Frazer's "10 Point Test," once the term "Judeo-Christian" is used, the Trinity becomes irrelevant. Neither is there any indication that besides Jefferson [and Paine], any Founder disputed that the Bible was divine revelation and not just some book.

But yes, I do agree the Puritans are very overemphasized, just as "deism" is. "Warm" deism [a monotheistic and providential God] coupled with a belief in divine revelation is far closer to a "Judeo-Christianity" than actual "deism."

Aaron Reese said...

Tom Van Dyke

As I understand it, most of the founders believed something in between the Bible being "divine revelation" and "some book." It seems that most of the FF (especially Washington, Franklin, and Adams) disbelieved the miracles of the bible and shunned supernatural aspects of Christianity. Adams, thought devoutly Christian, believed it was a corrupted text.

bpabbott said...

Re: "When the "secular" case is made---when they even bother to try---it rests on Jefferson's private correspondence, the Danbury letter, the Treaty of Tripoli, and very little else."

I think this implies a false dichotomy. Secularism doesn't purge religion. Rather it takes the position that the law should be free from religious doctrine.

The use of secular language enables those of different (incompatible?) religions views to participate in seeking a common goal, without their doctrinal differences interfering with the process.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It seems that most of the FF (especially Washington, Franklin, and Adams) disbelieved the miracles of the bible and shunned supernatural aspects of Christianity.

This is so partially true as to be substantially false, Mr. Reese. How quickly Jefferson and Franklin---the acknowledged outliers---become "most of" the Founders.

This narrative is far more prevalent that whatever the D. James Kennedys of the world say.

Adams, thought devoutly Christian, believed it was a corrupted text.

Yes, he did---although he called Christianity a "revelation" and allowed for miracles.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This narrative is far more prevalent that whatever the D. James Kennedys of the world say.

I think it depends on what the meaning of the word "prevalent" is. That narrative may prevail more in the "respected" academy. But many televised megachurches, such as DJK's, have big numbers.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I'd venture to say Mr. Reese's view is the one that our public school systems produce, since I find it virtually everywhere. Kennedy's reach is surely smaller than our educational systems!

[Plus he's been dead since 2007.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

There's a guy named Jerry Newcome, his and Peter Lillback's co-author, who is attempting to carry on the torch.

Plus, there's good ole David Barton. I saw him advertised as a featured speaker at a "retreat" that Charles Stanley has prepared.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, but the real problem is that Fischer, et al., are taken seriously, and by more people.

And yes, Ben, there certainly is a "secular" narrative, and it's taught in our schools. Except Texas.

;-)

Aaron Reese said...

Tom, I'm not exactly sure why you took my comment as a comprehensive list. It's not, obviously. They were examples.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, there were zero Jerry Falwells among them, that's for sure, even John Witherspoon, the clergyman.

But when Madison refers to "the best & purest religion, the Christian religion itself," this appeals to the prevailing sentiment in America, regardless of Madison's private theology.

So when Fischer writes:


Over the wider American landscape, however, colonists were notably “unchurched” and “un-Christian.”

"un-Christian" requires a lot more proof and argument than I've ever seen offered, or am likely to. The "un-churched" data is disputed by some scholars like James H. Hutson; be that as it may, there were Horse Protestants [served by itinerant preachers] and House Protestants [who discussed the Bible among themselves without clergy], and so absent more arguments, "un-Christian" is whopper.

The unsettling thing is that most folks can read Fischer here without raising an eyebrow.