Thursday, March 19, 2009

Christian Nation Thesis Debunked?

Well, not really, unless you let
the extremists define the terms...
by Tom Van Dyke

I think it was Jim Babka who said that those who believe in the "Christian Nation" thesis the most are the ones out there making the worst arguments for it.

I hear that. Bigtime.

Certainly there are some folks making claims like George Washington was some sort of Jerry Falwell, or that America was founded wholly on the Bible, or was ever some sort of Christian theocracy.

This opens the door for critics of any Christian nation [small "n," a far less extravagant claim] thesis to write:

The central thesis of the Christian America argument that is easily deconstructed is "it's by virtue of our specific theology [Sola-Scriptura Protestantism] that America's Founding order was created."

No wonder Mr. Rowe can write---truthfully, given those strictures---that

The problem is the Christian Nation idea is a myth. It was debunked by modern scholars...

Indeed. A sola scriptura ["Bible only"] argument is easily debunked. For one thing, it excludes the 1700+ years of Christian thought that includes Augustine, Aquinas, Suarez, Grotius, Hooker, and Jonathan Mayhew's famous sermon that was a "great influence in the commencement of the [American] Revolution." [For that matter, see also Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", which quotes some of these same Christian thinkers...]

And of course no Christian theocracy has ever existed that stoned homosexuals or disobedient children or drunks per Deuteronomy.

We don't need modern scholars to debunk a straw man.

But what do we learn about religion and the Founding by slapping down the most extreme claims? Unfortunately, not much, but the irony is that those who argue hardest---and unfortunately, badly---for America's Christian heritage make it all look like balderdash.

Indeed, this blog's favorite bogeyman, punching bag and object of scholarly abuse [and he deserves at least some of it for various errors and overstatements], David Barton of Wallbuilders, has never argued for a sola scriptura interpretation of the Founding. Yet he can be tarred [and is] with the broad brush of being "debunked," the additional irony being that Barton's own errors have brought more reasonable and scholarly advocates for the Christian nation thesis into disrepute themselves.

Now, I don't accuse anyone of creating these "straw men." These guys anoint themselves and raise themselves up. But it's too easy to put the torch to the scarecrows outside the house and declare a debunking instead of going up to the edifice and taking on the real folks inside.

The definitive Christian nation thesis argument remains the Rev. Jasper Adams sermon of 1833 [later published with footnotes and distributed all across America], which was highly praised by not one, but two sitting Supreme Court justices, America's first great constitutional scholar Joseph Story, and Chief Justice John Marshall.

Say what you want about "Christian Nationists" or David Barton, but Jasper Adams has not been "debunked." Not nearly.

The Christian nation thesis? Depends on whether you use a capital N or a lowercase one, I reckon. The latter at least is far from debunked. Proved? Nah, history doesn't work that way. I'll go with "The floor remains open."

Rock on.


Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't know if we should be putting Barton thru the microscope any more than we have already done, but I DO get the impression that he either explicitly argues for the Sola-Scriptura Christian Nation thesis or, to the extent he doesn't, he "elides" the nuances you've outlined above and give the impression of a Sola-Scriptura founding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I have no idea, Jon. I don't read David Barton, quote David Barton, or ever refer to David Barton until somebody around here punks him.

I don't want to defend the man and I certainly don't want to defend his work, which I just criticized.

He's your boy, not mine. You wanna "debunk" him as arguing "sola scriptura," the floor---and the burden of proof---is yours.


Anonymous said...

Say what you want about "Christian Nationists" or David Barton, but Jasper Adams has not been "debunked." Not nearly.

How about rebutted?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, I expected Madison's actual letter would be far more conclusive than it is. Read it for yourself.

Our Founding Truth said...

Indeed. A sola scriptura ["Bible only"] argument is easily debunked.>

I don't think so. Hooker and Grotius did not reject sola scriptura. It's debatable for Grotius, as I've earlier pointed out, so we agree to disagree, and where is the evidence on Hooker?

Jonathan Rowe said...


If you accept the natural law, you by your very nature reject Sola Scriptura. And Hooker and Grotius were natural law scholars! As John Lofton recently put it at Positive Liberty:

ROWE: The Roman Catholics, after Aquinas, who ultimately believed the Bible infallible…

LOFTON: Sorry, but if they believed the Bible infallible they would have stuck to the Bible only, as the Bible says we must do. Scripture neither says nor indicates that the Bible is insufficient and that we must go outside of Scripture for anything else.

ROWE: have their natural law tradition that supplements scripture.

LOFTON: However, Scripture says nothing about God’s Word needing anything to “supplement” it.

bpabbott said...


oh oh ... here it comes ...

Louie, Louie, Louieeee ;-)

In spite of Ray, Richard Berry was cool! ;-)