Friday, June 7, 2013

Mark David Hall on Religion and the Founding

An excerpt from Kevin R.C. Guzman's review of Mark David Hall's "Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic." Hall's research on the influence of religion on the American Founding, specifically that of "Reformed theology" more commonly called by outsiders "Calvinism":


"Hall sets out to correct a serious flaw in the historiography. While prominent accounts of the American Revolution's intellectual underpinnings devote considerable attention to the influence of Lockean, classical republican, Scottish Enlightenment traditions, the influence of Reformed Protestantism--that is, Calvinism--tends to be overlooked. Although the focus is on Sherman's political thinking, Hall tell us, his book shows that the Reformed tradition was central to the thought of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Oliver Ellsworth, Jonathan Trumbull, William Paterson, John Witherspoon, and several other prominent Calvinist politicians as well. 


As Hall puts it, "I am not arguing that Calvinism was the only influence on Sherman and his colleagues, simply that it was a very important influence that needs to be taken more seriously if we are to appreciate the political theory and actions of many of America's founders." Hall here continues the project on which he, Daniel L. Dreisbach, and Jeffry H. Morrison have long been jointly and severally embarked: that of fleshing out the story of religion's influence on the politics of the Revolution and Early Republic. 

Hall decries the tendency to write as if George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams (a group disproportionately composed of deists and marginally committed Christians) were the entirety of the Revolutionary generation, and then to deduce the meaning of America's original commitment to religious freedom from the ideas of those men. One illustration of this tendency is that, by Hall's calculation, Supreme Court justices writing opinions about the First Amendment's religion clauses have referred to Thomas Jefferson 112 times and to Sherman only three, even though Sherman helped write the First Amendment and Jefferson was away on diplomatic business in France at the time..."  Read the whole review here. Then check out the GoogleBooks preview here. Then buy the damn book.

14 comments:

Mark in Spokane said...

Tom,

Thanks for sharing this. I've long argued, on this blog and elsewhere, that if one looks at the so-called "second and third tier founders," one finds a lot of committed Christians, overwhelmingly Evangelical in their piety and within the orthodox Nicene tradition in their general theology. Most of these men where also strongly influenced by the Puritans and the Reformed Protestant religion. John Adams in one of his letters admits as much, I believe, noting that the revolutionary movement was an outgrowth, among other things, of Presbyterianism.

While the "top tier" were likely rationalist theists in their thinking (although I tend to think that if you asked them if they were Christians they would have said yes, broadly defined --except for Franklin), the lower tiers of founders were thick with Christians -- including the plucky Carroll family of Maryland, flying the Papal banner!

wsforten said...

It's good to see that Mark recognized Locke as a latecomer to the discussion of individual rights and rule by the consent of the governed. Christians had been making these arguments for centuries before Locke came on the scene. I don't know if Mark develops this line any further back than Calvin, but it could actually be traced back to the Mosaic Covenant in Exodus 19-24. It's a shame that Mark's book is so expensive. I'd love to read it, but I'll probably have to wait until I can find a used copy somewhere.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm ashamed to say I haven't bought the book yet; though I certainly will very soon.

Lee said...

Hey Mark . . .

No doubt Christianity,esp. Reformed Christianity, informed the world views of large numbers of Americans. Although the review gave a good summary of Sherman's views, it failed to give a sense of how his religious beliefs directly influenced his political philosophy. For example, what about his theological views moved him to oppose popular election of representatives to the new government? Why did the Reformed Christianity of others lead them to support the opposite view? This objection relates also to the claim of weforten that Christians made arguments for individual rights for centuries. If is true, why then did so many other Christians ignore those arguments? (Even most American Christians credited Locke for the new emphasis on rights.) More to my point, most Christians in Europe before Locke argued that Christianity supports monarchy or some kind of mixed regime. How could Christianity support both?

Lee said...

Hey wsforten-

Concerning the cost of books-

my strategy for reducing the cost of books is a local university library.If you live near one, it will hold a collection far superior to most public libraries. Because you are a taxpayer, you can get a non-student borrower card for little or no charge.Then if I come across "a keeper," then I will reach for the wallet.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This objection relates also to the claim of weforten that Christians made arguments for individual rights for centuries. If is true, why then did so many other Christians ignore those arguments? (Even most American Christians credited Locke for the new emphasis on rights.)

The Calvinist contribution is on the nature of government, and of sovereignty. The traditional argument per Romans 13 is that God gives the king sovereignty; the new theories have God giving it to the people, who in turn entrust it to government.

http://www.davekopel.com/religion/calvinism.htm

wsforten said...

Lee,

The balance between submission to government and individual rights is a natural conflict within Christian doctrine. Consider what Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.

Here we have a dichotomy in the relationship that a servant is to have to his master. On the one hand, he is not to worry about being a servant but rather to abide in that condition with the realization that he is God's freeman. On the other hand, if the servant has an opportunity to become free, he is to take advantage of that opportunity in order to use it to serve the Lord. It is the point of this balance between submission and independence that has been argued among Christian scholars over the centuries. Neither side denies the validity of the other as a matter of principle. They simply disagree over the practical application.

Examples of this can be seen in the lives of several of the founding fathers. Elias Boudinot, for example, wrote that he struggled greatly over whether to aid the Americans or submit to the British until the passage of the American Prohibitory Act. The passage of this Act was the pivotal point at which the King of England legally declared America to be independent of his rule, and Boudinot realized that the conflict between the two principles of submission and independence had been removed. He had been declared free, and it was now his responsibility to maintain that freedom.

This balance between the conflicting principles of submission and independence can be seen in the writings of the followers of God throughout all of human history. The same conflict expressed in the first several chapters of the book of Daniel can be found in the writings of those Christians who lived every day in fear of their lives behind the iron curtain. Throughout this span of time, various Christian philosophers, such as Locke, have risen up in strong support of a particular type of balance between these principles, and they have often been opposed by others who just as strongly support a different balance, but the balance has always been there. You will find very few Christian philosophers arguing for either side in complete exclusion of the other, and those who did so were very quickly rejected by the vast majority of the Christian community. Had Locke argued for anarchy, he would have been run out of town, but his argument for a balance slightly more in favor of individual rights was recognized as a proper biblical argument.

By the way, this is why Locke presented his second treatise on government as his second treatise and not his first. His first treatise was a declaration of the flaws of the then accepted balance. If you'll notice, he devoted the entire first treatise to explaining why that balance disagreed with the clear teachings of the Bible. His second treatise was not written in a vacuum. It was a natural declaration of the new balance which was revealed in the biblical studies of the first treatise.

Lee said...

Hey TVD-

Interesting link, as always.
I guess one could argue that these ideas reveal the origin of the idea of individual natural rights. Their immediate concern seems to be more about usurpation of authority by rulers and the threat of subjecting the people to arbitrary power--an important theme of the revolution. It is still a long way from notions of arbitrary power and articulation of individual rights, esp. religious rights.

Lee said...

Hey TVD--

To elaborate and clarify . . .

In my limited understanding of the history of rights, I see the earliest traditions invoke the idea of the right to be free from the arbitrary authority of rulers. It is another way of saying the people should be under the rule of law rather than of men. As good example that you, as a Christian, might appreciate is Paul's claim of Roman citizenship when he was threatened with scourging by a centurion back in Acts 22. I have no clue if Paul alluded to any specific legal rights other than the right of a Roman citizen to the protection of the laws, i.e., to be free from arbitrary decisions by ruling authorities. Obviously, non-Romans enjoyed no such right. They could and were subjected to the arbitrary decisions of Roman soldiers in the field. Again, in my limited knowledge of the history of rights, it seems that this concept persisted until the so called Enlightenment, when we begin to hear more specific cataloging of natural rights. This is why I find it puzzling when I hear the claim that Christians have argued for individual rights for centuries before Locke. Is this what you mean by rights, a more general right to be free from tyranny and arbitrary authority? Or have I conflated a misunderstanding of your views with my own?

Lee said...

Hey wsforten--

I appreciate your post on submission vs. rights--I'll respond the best I can below. Your reply makes me think I have misunderstood the point of the original post or have been misunderstood in my comments. The post and the review assert the valid claim that Reformed Theology influenced many of the lesser founders and a large portion of citizens. I agree. But the problem I see with such claims is establishing concrete connections between theology and political philosophy. Maybe this is asking too much, but if such claims are made, then it seems reasonable to ask for specificity. I want to see more than vague allusions to "influence." I appreciate your effort to answer my objection on the narrower question of submission vs. rights.

Lee said...

Hey wsforten--

First, let me respond to your opening text from Corinthians. As a skeptic, I probably will not make a good theologian, but I'll give it a go. I do not believe much tension between liberty and submission exists at all in the passage you cite. Paul creates or plays upon an ambiguity about the meaning of freedom to instruct his audience. Obviously, everyone possesses the "natural freedom" of will. Some persons, however, have lost their "circumstantial freedom" owing to their legal status: they are slaves. Paul commands slaves not to seek to change this status. Instead, he reminds them of their "spiritual" or "moral" freedom. Because they are called to God and regenerated, they are no longer slaves to sin. They are the Lord's freemen.Or they have become to Lord's slaves--to obey their new owner in living righteously for Him. The bottom line, however, is that Paul directs them to remain slaves. Who knows if this was more assuring in 60 AD than in 1861 AD; but I do not see any tension.

Lee said...

Hey wsforten-

Paul's ambiguous use of the concept of freedom actually removes the tension between submission and individual rights. But your passage illustrates the problem I see for those who argue that the Bible or Christian dogma based on the Bible (and other non-Christian concepts)directly influenced the founding or provide valuable insights into how we should govern our affairs today. Slavery is just one of many things that Christians have disagreed about. They disagree about many other questions such as government, rights, and morality. They cannot even agree on the heurmeneutics of their own regarding the most basic of questions: the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Many, if not most, of these disagreements are fundamental, not matters of "tension" and "balance."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey TVD-

Interesting link, as always.
I guess one could argue that these ideas reveal the origin of the idea of individual natural rights.


Lee, the argument in Barry Shain's "Myth of American Individualism" [and others] is that there were arguments for rights on the group level as well--for instance that religious group X had the right to exist and be left alone. The individual rights concept is present, but nowhere near the 21st century's libertarianism, that of liberty = licence, of Ayn Rand and "radical individualism."

There is also the Protestant dimension of "every man a minister" that argues for a level of individual rights, that is, free of Papism command and control over theological truth, which is analogized to a monarch's monopoly on political power.

These dynamics are seldom explicitly expressed, for they form the basis of the prevailing worldview, and we seldom even realize the countless number of presupposition under which we operate.

Tom Van Dyke said...

LEE: Paul creates or plays upon an ambiguity about the meaning of freedom to instruct his audience. Obviously, everyone possesses the "natural freedom" of will. Some persons, however, have lost their "circumstantial freedom" owing to their legal status: they are slaves. Paul commands slaves not to seek to change this status. Instead, he reminds them of their "spiritual" or "moral" freedom. Because they are called to God and regenerated, they are no longer slaves to sin. They are the Lord's freemen.Or they have become to Lord's slaves--to obey their new owner in living righteously for Him.

This classic counterargument is well and succinctly put here. As Locke and Channing also argued, for Christianity in Roman times to have actively opposed slavery would have made Christianity merely a worldly politics, and a bloody one at that.

Jesus' message about the next world would have been completely buried.