Sunday, March 1, 2020

First Thoughts on Mark David Hall's New Book

I am slowly enjoying Mark David Hall's new book, "Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth." I think he makes a reasonable case for his position that America had a "Christian" founding. And I think it deserves popular success along with Drs. John Fea's and Gregg Frazer's books on the matter.

But, of course, I have to say something critical. And let me start with one glaring error. His title to Chapter Two is "The United States Does Not Have a Godless Constitution." I would quarrel with the title. America's Constitution technically is Godless. Rather, let's make the case that such fact doesn't necessarily mean America was founded to be a secular utopia or that the ACLU and Americans United For Separation of Church and State have it right.

Indeed, in the first paragraph of the chapter, he concedes the point, but terms it "trivial."

Rather, the glaring error is on page 24. Dr. Hall says the "Deity" was not mentioned in France's Declaration of the Rights of Man. No. All three Declarations of the Rights of Man invoke the Deity in generic terms, just like America's Declaration of Independence does.

There were indeed differences between America's and France's Revolutions. France's was more radical and influenced by the French Enlightenment; America's was more moderate and influenced by the Scotch Anglo Enlightenment. The American Revolution was influenced by the Glorious Revolution. And the French Revolution was influenced by both the Glorious and American Revolutions.

This may seem like a nitpicky point, but I think it's important. The religious conservatives who will sympathize with Dr. Hall's book might wish to portray the American founding as a "Christian" event, but the French as "atheistic." Just as the term "Christian" has multiple potential understandings, so does "atheist." The American founding has been portrayed as "atheistic." Sometimes the term "atheist" means "not orthodox enough." Other times it might refer to some kind of esoteric plan of philosophers.

Both the American AND French revolutions (along with the Glorius) appealed to a Deity and took place in the context of Christendom. All three events are connected in meaningful ways. But that's for another day's post.


Mark David Hall said...

Thanks for catching the error, Jon. I'll correct the mistake for the paperback if the publisher lets me do so.

I may have been thinking of the French Constitution of 1791, a quick glance at which suggests it is Deity-less with following exception:

Executory writs of judgments of courts shall be expressed as follows
“N. (the name of the King), by the grace of God and the constitutional law of the State,
King of the French, to all here and hereafter, greeting . . .

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good catch by Jon and a gracious acknowledgment by Mark.


To the actual substance of this matter, if I may, I have always been struck by the substance of this, and my Straussian close reading of the "THE DECLARATION OF THE Rights of Man AND OF THE CITIZEN" [full title, 1789], suggests a clear intention to marginalize God to his "auspices"

Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:

whatever the hell that means. See also Robespierre's "Cult of the Supreme Being," which unlike the American deity, is conspicuously NOT Jehovah. To my reading,

[NB: I do not know French; perhaps "auspices" means something more profound in French. But "auspices" falls far short of the Declaration of Independence's mandate of the will of our "creator."

As a point of order, Jon: Re any later revisions, the "auspices" are conspicuously deleted, but to my knowledge any later editions of the "Rights of Man" were never ratified. We are stuck with 1789.]

To return to the text:

It is the National Assembly that DECLARES these rights of man, whether the Supreme Being likes it or not, in stark contrast to the Americans holding them as 'self-evident,' and as an endowment from God.

In the French simulacrum--I would call it a philosophical counterfeit--there is no clear path to separate natural rights of man from the political [civil] rights of the citizen.

This mishmosh of half-baked political philosophy resulted in revolutionary chaos, of course, resolved only by rise of Emperor Napoleon.

The religious conservatives who will sympathize with Dr. Hall's book might wish to portray the American founding as a "Christian" event, but the French as "atheistic." Just as the term "Christian" has multiple potential understandings, so does "atheist."

Oh, I think this this too facile by half, Jon. Even the notorious infidel Thomas Paine traveled to Revolutionary France to "save them from atheism." Theological opposition to the American Revolution from Gregg Frazer's Anglican clerical Loyalists comes down to splitting scriptural hairs.

There's no lumping possible here, IMO. Revolutionary France was godless. Its nod toward a Supreme Being was empty. Its desecration of graveyards [see Alexander Hamilton's report] and the cathedral of Notre Dame [naked chicks on the altar, renamed "The Temple of Reason"] were abominable, and we haven't even got to the genocide of the Catholic Vendée region (1793–95).

I cannot stand down on this point, Jon. The French Revolution was a despicable perversion of the American revolution, and in it lie the seeds of the horrors of the 20th century.

Jon Rowe said...

My pleasure Mark. As I noted, I'm slowly enjoying the book during my very busy schedule. I plan to write more on it.