Sunday, November 8, 2009

Peter Marshall's Erroneous Christian Nation Response to the Texas Controversy

Okay there was this big hubbub over Peter Marshall and David Barton being appointed to some kind of Texas public education panel on historical issues. Even though I believe those two produce extremely shoddy scholarship (as I will demonstrate below) I will note that Daniel Dreisbach, also appointed to represent the religious conservative point of view, as far as I have assessed his work, produces top notch work.

But the point of this post is to show Marshall's academically shoddy response to the controversy. Marshall recounts and responds to the controversy here.

Here is where Marshall steps in it. He attempts to argue against the accurate claim, written by a critic of him and Barton:

"Actually, the founding fathers had many things in mind when they drew on a variety of sources -- Greek, Roman, biblical, Enlightenment -- to invent a new nation."
Rev. Marshall makes an egregious error when he responds:

Research has revealed that Enlightenment philosophy was far less influential in the thinking of the Founding Fathers than has been taught in recent decades. A 1984 article in the American Political Science Review revealed that 34 percent of the most important quotes used by the Founding Fathers in the creation of the Constitution came directly from the Bible. True Enlightenment sources were quoted only 7 percent of the time. So the Bible turns out to be five times as influential as the Enlightenment.
He's of course referring to the much misunderstood study that Christian Nationalists cite by Donald S. Lutz, et al. Lutz is a respected scholar and the study as far as I have read it is valid. It notes the Bible was cited quite a bit during Founding times. And it was mainly sermons -- a common form of literature back then -- from where the Bible was cited. NOT necessarily quotes from the writers, signers, or ratifiers of the Declaration or the Constitution, but sermons by ministers. Yes, of course sermons given in professing "Christian" churches are going to cite the Bible. You can read many of the Founding era sermons here (note I don't know of the relationship between these sermons and the ones Lutz studied; I do know that the Sandoz collection reproduces the most influential sermons of that era; and interestingly it was unitarians like Jonathan Mayhew, Charles Chauncy and Samuel West using creative natural law thinking to explain away Romans 13's prohibition on revolt who most profoundly influenced the American Revolution).

It's important to note the distinction between the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Here's where Marshall stepped in it: He claimed the Lutz study found "34 percent of the most important quotes used by the Founding Fathers in the creation of the Constitution came directly from the Bible."

It actually finds the very opposite, that although religious rhetoric abounded during the revolutionary period (and during other parts of the American Founding), when it came time to framing and ratifying the Constitution, the Bible's prominence disappears and that Enlightenment rationalism dominated. As that very study puts it discussing the specific years 1787 and 1788:

The Bible's prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible has little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalists' inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.
When you actually look at what the Founding Fathers -- not just Washington, Franklin, Madison, Morris, Hamilton and Wilson (the "key Founders"), but the entire group of framers -- said during the Constitutional Convention, and what the "key Founders" wrote in the Federalist Papers, we get a whopping ZERO citations of the Bible for the specific provisions of the Constitution. As Gregg Frazer put it:

In the hundreds of pages comprising Madison’s notes on the constitutional convention (and those of the others who kept notes), there is no mention of biblical passages/verses in the debates/discussions on the various parts and principles of the Constitution. They mention Rome, Sparta, German confederacies, Montesquieu, and a number of other sources — but no Scripture verses.

In The Federalist Papers, there is no mention of biblical sources for any of the Constitution’s principles, either — one would think they could squeeze them in among the 85 essays if they were, indeed, the sources; especially since the audience was common men who were familiar with, and had respect for, the Bible. The word “God” is used twice — and one of those is a reference to the pagan gods of ancient Greece. “Almighty” is used twice and “providence” three times — but neither is ever used in connection with any constitutional principle or influence. The Bible is not mentioned.

I think this is what historian Clinton Rossiter meant when he noted, "The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit."

To which Marshall responds, "That's not even remotely true. Rossiter was a respected historian, but he got this one wrong." No. Rev. Marshall is the one who peddles things that are "not even remotely true."


Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't necessarily agree with it in toto, but Marshall's entire argument should be posted here:

"The Convention of 1787," writes historian Clinton Rossiter, "was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit."

That's not even remotely true. Rossiter was a respected historian, but he got this one wrong. Most of the delegates were practicing Christians, whose Biblical worldview shaped the thinking that went into the formation of the Constitution. About 40 percent of them were office-holders -- not merely members -- in Bible societies, dedicated to spreading the Word of God. Ben Franklin's famous plea for prayer at the opening of each day's business, even though it failed for lack of finances to pay a chaplain, was warmly received. The spirit of the convention was far more Christian than secular -- many of the delegates, including George Washington, attended a Fourth of July anniversary service at the Calvinist church, where Reverend William Rogers prayed for them. And at the successful conclusion of the convention, future President and chief architect of the Constitution James Madison (who was not normally given to enthusiastic Christian sentiment) wrote to Thomas Jefferson, who was in France: "It is impossible to conceive the concord which ultimately prevailed, as less than a miracle." In the Federalist Papers, Madison also stated: "It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it (the Constitution) the finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the Revolution." Secular is hardly the right word to describe the Constitutional Convention.

Marshall is disputing respected historian Clinton Rossiter's assertion that the convention of 1787 was "even secular in spirit," by counterarguing that the Founders were informed by a Biblical worldview.

Neither is it exactly fair to raise the "Christian Nation" flag on Marshall, since he explicitly writes:

One tiny but important quibble: Neither I nor David Barton "call for teaching the biblical foundations of a 'Christian America.'" Neither of us uses that phrase because it is confusing and misleading. In my books and talks I simply call for schools and textbooks to teach the Biblical foundations of America."

I don't endorse his essay 100%, but it's far more nuanced and less lunkheaded than one might be inclined to give it credit for. As always, read it for yourself.

King of Ireland said...


There is theory and practice. The theory of the DOI had theological aspects. In practice the Bible has little to say about forms of government. Some have applied what they think it says about church gov and tried apply it but it is their view not an infallible opinion.

Phil Johnson said...

Well, I guess I'll have to eventually come up with some quotations to prove this (maybe others have them at their fingertips?); but, I believe the Founders were more interested in a continuation of what all Englishmen already had than they were in creating some new society based on any new or different ideas about God or man. They wanted a society pretty close to what all Englishment enjoyed in which their officials would be representative of their interests as a people--Englishmen to the core.

Gregg Frazer said...

Marshall needs to read pages 18 and 26 of his own book -- "The Light and the Glory" -- where the term "Christian nation" is used as God's and the founders' intent.

Reading the pages in between leaves no doubt about what they mean, either.