Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mark David Hall On Key v. Non-Key Founders

I didn't know Mark David Hall, of George Fox University, had a blog (with fellow George Foxers). Check it out here.


jimmiraybob said...

Thanks to you (and TVD at Dr. T's place) for pointing to this video.

Although, this comment by MDH is a bit perplexing:

I just want to make sure we don’t limit discussion of America’s founders to a few unrepresentative elites.

Which one or one's of the usually cited "key" founders are unrepresentative? Maybe he meant entirely representative.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson and John Adams are unrepresentative, so much so that they kept their true thoughts secret from the public.

Nearly the last public issue we get from Adams is a thxgiving and fast proclamation in 1799, and if he didn't believe in the Trinity [he later says he didn't], the general public sure couldn't tell:

"“I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction…”

jimmiraybob said...

I went back and reread. Now I get it. The "Key" Founders weren't sufficiently representative of Calvinism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This guy has lost the ability to make a principled argument.

jimmiraybob said...

This guy has lost the ability to make a principled argument.

Which "this guy" are you referring to?

Mark Hall said...

Thanks for noticing our unfortunately less than active blog, Jon.

To jimmyiraybob, I think there is an important difference between being interesting and being representative. Jefferson is incredibly interesting, but few Americans shared his religious views or his views on church-state relations.

jimmiraybob said...

Mark, At first I was perplexed by the unrepresentative comment, first thinking that it was in reference to political theory/thought, but went back and took another look and it appears that the comment was specifically to representation of Calvinist religious thought (and to other good Christians).

And I came to that observation via:

"I am not prepared to argue that many founders should be called 'evangelical,' but how about Calvinists? If we expand range of founders..."

And, just so others know that I'm not being snarky by "other good Christians":

"And of course non-Calvinists can be good Christians too..."

I'm not trying to misrepresent you and if I misunderstand please let me know.

And, for the record, I was not making an argument, principled or otherwise. And, given my understanding that you are making reference to overall religious views (as opposed to political rhetoric and theory, where I would see the "key" founders as pretty representative, I have no argument.

Mark Hall said...

The context was indeed their faiths commitments.

By "good Christians" I simply mean orthodox Christians. The chief point is that a claim like the following is simply not accurate:

“The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists…” Search for Christian America, 73).

The only way one can begin to make this argument is if you limit who counts as a founder to a handful of brilliant and interesting but unrepresentative guys like Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams.

Perhaps at the level of deep principles there was overlap with respect to political theory, but do keep in mind that there were some pretty big differences even among key guys (e.g. Anti-Federalists v. Federalists, Hamilton v. Jefferson on power of the national government).


jimmiraybob said...

Yes. I've always thought that the formulation used for the founders, etc., was the problem.


1) The (fill in the blank) of the founders/framers was (fill in the blank).

2) The founders/framers were (fill in the blank).

The second FITB of both examples requires something far more complex that represents more of a continuum than a box. For example:

The (religious faith) of the founders/framers* was (complex, ranging from a devout and orthodox Christian belief and practice to a more radical, sometimes deist-like religious skepticism. Both shared similar western Christian roots with the former relying on more traditional and more theologically Biblical authority and the later incorporating a wider use of non-Christian and largely ancient Roman-Greek pre-Christian texts and authors. Echoes of both Jerusalem and Athens are clearly present and often untangled only with great difficulty - if at all).

The above, to me, seems accurate and a fair representation but it has the disadvantage of not fitting on a postage stamp and I'm sure it enrages some.

For the postage stamp version I'm fine with "theistic rationalist" or "deist" - with the appropriate caveats. But, I'm not sure that this actually covers the Samuel Adams of the Herman Husband. But, If I'm asked to vote, I'm voting on making people deal with the complex formulation.**

*and may as well throw in The People too.

**as I think about it, the linear spectrum model lends itself to a nice graphical representation possibility. (Hat-tip to the more scientifically oriented of the founders/framers.)

Thanks for the engagement.

jimmiraybob said...

Since I'm not trying to be bellicose, let me add a smiley face :) to "I'm voting on making people deal with the complex formulation."

Tom Van Dyke said...

The chief point is that a claim like the following is simply not accurate:

“The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists…” Search for Christian America, 73).

Exactly, Mark. I used this--your-- argument on another blog, which Jon spotted and posted here. There is much fog on the "deist" thing to dispel.


Mark Hall said...

It is hard to argue against complexity, but claims that things are complex distort reality. Consider this claim: "African Americans today support a variety of political parties. Some are Republicans, some Greens, some Democrats, and some Communists." This is, of course, absolutely true, but it is also misleading as at least 90% vote Democratic in any given election.

I would submit that virtually every civic leader in the founding era would have identified himself as a Christian (perhaps initially by a Christian denomination), that many of them were serious, orthodox Christians, that virtually none of them clearly rejected orthodox Christian ideas, and that all were influenced in important ways by Christian ideas.

jimmiraybob said...

...but claims that things are complex distort reality.

I'd say claims that things are complex reflect reality but distort narrative.

RE: your example - I remember a time that Saddam Hussein got 100% of the vote. Really, they claimed every single vote. That was his and their story/narrative/reality. That certainly was a "reality" he didn't want distorted by the details of how and why. Almost got away with it.

I remember a time when the Pope and the Church taught that all religious authority rested with him and the institution. That was his and their story/narrative/reality - almost got away with it. But then people started looking at the details and reading strange literature about strange political ideas like democracy and power to the people and such. Boy, did that create some heat. And some pretty interesting reality distortion that's still much discussed today.

Maybe that's part of the rub with the modern - people are always looking to the details, the facts, and won't just settle back and think of England.

Mark Hall said...

I'm not quite sure I follow the comparison with Saddam. Are you denying that 90%+ of African-Americans have voted for Democratic candidates in virtually every election for the past 40 years at a c. 90%? If not, surely it will not do to say "The partisan affiliation of African-Americans over the last 40 years is complex, some vote Republican, some vote Democratic, etc." Indeed, I think this would be a clear distortion of the reality of how African-Americans vote.

But of course it would be inaccurate to say "All African-Americans vote Democratic." My statement about the religious affiliation of America's founders recognizes that there is diversity, but that doesn't mean that we can't make very meaningful generalizations about their views.

jimmiraybob said...

My point was that looking solely at generalizations can be as distorting as focusing solely on the details. Especially politically. Historically, those whose power depends on a general narrative - generally shaped by those in power - that is favorable to them have discouraged looking at the details that might bring the narrative into question and challenge their power.

Tim Polack said...

Thanks for the post Jon, Mark. This dovetails into an issue that I (and discussions) often have on this blog. That is not including the full scope of all the founders in the discussion. By limiting it to key Founders, certain arguments can be made that cannot be otherwise made.

Having said that, I don't think Noll and Marsden were that far off in their remarks. As you mention Mark, they do give the caveat that they are referring to the 'major' founders, and in that respect, that quote is quite accurate. I think some of the 'fog' as Tom mentions that comes in is communicating to the broader world. I think Noll and Marsden focused on the key founders in part because they were trying to reach more of a public audience (not just public, but more public). And as Evangelicals, they are well aware that most of their own kind would struggle with a much deeper analysis of the topic.

In the end, I think it's critical to look at the full spectrum of the founders. But in communicating with the public, the struggle to make sense of these complexities almost always results in important details left on the cutting room floor. Sometimes I think they use the 'deist' language just to shake up their own folks, though I personally wished they hadn't.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think some of these "key" Founders were key because they were not seen as particularly affiliated with any one denomination. Religion was left to the states; each state had a particular denominational character--those who were seen as "above" sectarian feuding were desirable for their ability to unify.

Remember, John Adams complained he lost 1800 for having being seen as Presbyterian. The fear of sectarian tyranny was real. [Think Oliver Cromwell!]

Mark Hall said...

I find the focus on a few "key" founders to be highly problematic. And it is easy to slide from them to make broader claims, as follows:

“The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists…” Search for Christian America, 73).

But let's play the great game for a minute. Noll et al. acknowledge that Witherspoon, Henry, and Jay should be counted among the "greats," (72-73) so if you count them why not Sherman, S. Adams, Ellsworth, Hancock? Now we have at least as many orthodox Christians as those who are less orthodox.

When we keep in mind that many of the projects these men worked on were done in communities (e.g. federal convention, First Congress, etc.) I think it is even more problematic to focus on a few. Consider briefly Madison and the Bill of Rights. He wanted the amendments spread throughout the Constitution, Sherman wanted them attached to it. Sherman won that battle. The wording of every amendment JM proposed was changed, and the amendment he valued the most was rejected. He was not a demigod imposing his will on cowed colleagues.

If we want to understand the founders, we simply must look at more than a few "key" ones. But if for some reason we want to do this, we should make it crystal clear that we are talking about only a few key people, as Noll et al. fail to do in the above quote.

For the record, I should say that Noll, Marsden, and Hatch are among my favorite historians, and I am optimistic that they would write these pages differently if they revised the book.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sharp rebuttal and persuasive math, MH, as well as the point about how many battles the "Father of the Constitution" actually ended up losing at the Framing.

[He also lost the chaplains battle, too, an issue that speaks for accommodation, not strict separation.]

Tim Polack said...

I find I have to keep that in mind instead of falling into the trap of explaining "the Founders" by describing the key 5 or 7.

Tom, interesting point, might be counter-intuitive until you look closely and realize that it was the pluralistic nature that demanded a certain detachment. I think particularly of how John Adam's defense of royal troops gave him a credibility that made him very desirable for the Continental Congress. Also, I did not expect that link to go to a piece by Ms. Rodda!

Mark, agree, but I wonder if even making this crystal clear is enough. I'm thinking of communicating this information in a CNN like environment. The anti-intellectual nature of this country is a huge barrier to communicating even a slightly more nuanced view. But of course that's no excuse.
And I'm with you on Noll, Marsden and Hatch. I have been in Noll's church in South Bend for a time and would ask him to respond, but I'm back up in Michigan now. I should see him in a few weeks, so maybe I'll ask him, see if he's game to respond?