Tuesday, April 7, 2020

More Comprehensive Review of Mark David Hall's New Book

So I have finished Mark David Hall's new book entitled "Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth." Here are some thoughts. I stand by my original impression where I wrote:
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 here are also some issues I have with the analysis. I largely agree with Dr. Gregg Frazer's comments about the "Lutz et al." study. In short, the Lutz study has been purported to show the Bible's dominant relative influence on the American founding. Dr. Hall plays up this theme. But if you scratch beneath the surface, there is more to the story.

The study also shows the profound influence of John Locke and Enlightenment rationalism on the American founding.

So what's going on here? This analysis can be difficult.  It's indisputable that different ideologies -- including 1. the Bible/Protestant Christianity, 2. English common law, 3. Whig ideology, 4. Ancient Greco-Romanism, and 5. Enlightenment rationalism -- had some kind of meaningful impact on the ideology of the American founding.

Respected scholars of varying perspectives would not dispute this, but rather tend to argue over which vision prevailed in the synthesis. The problem is further compounded by the fact that we disagree over which box to put a particular important thinker or prevailing celebrated notion like the natural right to religious liberty. Certain key thinkers like John Locke, who posited these celebrated prevailing notions, arguably fit into more than one box.

I don't think, indeed, that you can downplay the influence of Locke or Montesquieu, who are generally regarded as part of the moderate Enlightenment. True, Locke was arguably more influential during the period of America's revolution against Great Britain and war for independence (where citations to the Bible were also very important, in political sermons that oft-were synthesized with Lockean understandings of state of nature/social contract and rights. These Lockean ideas affected how properly to understand the Bible's Romans 13. This was the key text in the Bible that arguably stood in the way of a right to rebel against tyrannical government).

Locke was less influential during the framing of the US Constitution. However, that doesn't mean the Bible took over. To the contrary, from the Lutz study, when it came to the writing of the US Constitution:
“The Bible’s prominence disappears” and “the Federalists’ inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.” And: “The debate surrounding the adoption of the Constitution was fought out mainly in the context of Montesquieu, Blackstone, the English Whigs, and major writers of the Enlightenment.”
I think it's important here to note that just as there are many variations of "Christianity," so too are there of "Enlightenment." The more moderate Scotch Anglo Enlightenment was key to the America's founding thought. The French Revolution was influenced by the American Revolution and many of the same ideological principles, but went further in a radical direction with Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau who wasn't influential in America. 

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I think Dr. Hall also gets James Madison only 1/2 right. Hall cites among other things Madison's Federalist 55 on human nature:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so also there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.
This does illustrate that the James Madison, writing as Publius, who defended the US Constitution rejected the more radical Enlightenment notion of the "perfectibility of man." But contrary to Hall's assertion it does not make Madison's sentiment into the T of John Calvin's TULIP. T standing for "Total Depravity." Rather, it seems Madison thought man's nature somewhat or partially depraved.

But I also note that not all "orthodox Christians" of the founding era or today are Calvinists. Every letter of Calvin's TULIP is disputed by orthodox Protestants back then and today. Though Hall claims the "Christianity" of America's founding as not only "orthodox" but also "reformed." This perhaps is a bridge too far. I write more on this below.

Hall's discussion of George Washington is relevant here too. Just as the definition of "deism" is disputed (and noted in Hall's nifty book) so too is "Christianity." Hall's thesis is that Christianity influenced the American founding in a very meaningful way and I don't dispute this; but I think a lot of it depends on the definition of "Christianity."

The more narrow the definition according to "orthodox" standards, the less "Christian" the American founding appears to be. George Washington, for instance, has been claimed as "Christian" (and other things). In some broader latitudinarian sense; he clearly was. If to be a virtuous person means you are a Christian, then I think Washington would clearly pass this test.

Like many scholars, I doubt Washington believed in Christian orthodoxy, and not all of the quotations that are offered to support Washington's "Christianity" necessarily mean that he was orthodox. John Marshall, who Hall cites as follows, noted Washington was a "sincere believer in the Christian faith, and a truly devout man."

It's not clear what Marshall meant by "Christianity." Marshall himself, for most of his life, was a unitarian in the Anglican-Episcopalian Church, who, like Washington avoided communion in that church. Likewise, Jared Sparks has notably defended Washington's "Christianity." But Sparks too was unitarian.

Marshall and Unitarian Joseph Story defended the "Christian" foundations of the United States to one Jaspar Adams in 1833, which Hall cites in his book, "Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity." (Quoting Marshall.)

I stress the unitarianism of these figures because you have to wonder what the "Christianity" whose foundation they were defending meant, whether it described George Washington's creed or the entire nation. If it means Jesus' profound moral teachings, and the wisdom contained in the Bible, then the argument for Christianity's influence on the American founding appears quite strong. If on the other hand, it meant the orthodox standards contained in creeds of the Churches, it's a harder sell.

As I noted above I think Hall perhaps boxes himself in by asserting the Christianity of the American founding as chiefly "reformed." It's true that most of the population of the time can be connected to a church with an orthodox creed that is in some way part of the "reformed" tradition. But by the middle of the 18th century Congregational Churches who fit that description had notable unitarian preachers.

The "Christianity" of the American founding was diverse and the political theology was latitudinarian and non-sectarian. I think it's a probable truth that the majority of the American population then were "orthodox Christians" but I wouldn't push it much further.

14 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

I still question the premise here that a belief in Jesus's divinity [or not, per "unitarianism"] made any substantive difference in the American Founding. The key theological break was from the Catholic Church and then from the authority of the Anglican Church.

This where Reformed [Calvinist] theology comes in, beyond the hairsplitting of whether mankind is totally depraved or just halfway depraved. The Reformed churches [of nearly innumerable denominations] had nothing resembling the centralized ecclesiastical or theological authority of Rome or Canterbury: Thus the accreting American political theology took its own course--but as much or more a Reformed one as an "Enlightenment" one.

[Or arguably, even a "Protestant scholasticism."]


I agree with the objection that the US Constitution owes provably little to the Bible or even to Christian political theology, except for its underlying assumptions about rights and the sovereignty of the people [read: consent of the governed], without which the Constitution is a mere social contract, which it is not.



"Did America Have a Christian Founding? The "godless constitution" argument applies only to the United States, not America. The Constitution restructures the United States from the Articles of Confederation, but a nation--the "of America" part--is more than just the sum of its laws.

Mark David Hall said...

Thanks for reading the book, Jon! A few brief thoughts:

1. I discuss the Lutz study on one page of the book and do not think I rely heavily on it.
2. I agree that there were multiple, sometimes reinforcing, intellectual influences on America's founders. Reasonable scholars can disagree about their relative influence.
3. Please note that I never argue that Washington was an orthodox Christian. I argue he is not a deist as deism is regularly defined by scholars as diverse as Wolfe and Grasso and activists like Seidel. I quote Marshall on Washington simply to point out that those who dismiss the influence of Christianity on America's founders regularly quote secondary accounts about the lack of faith (e.g. Meade on Madison) and ignore quotes like the Marshall one.

But, again, thank you for reading the book and for your kind words.

Jon Rowe said...

My pleasure, Mark. I look forward to more commentary on your book.

Unknown said...

Just out of curiosity, Mr. Van Dyke, where does one find rights, consent of the governed, or sovereignty of the people in the Bible?

If they're not there, but just in "Christian" political theology, what makes that political theology "Christian?"

Gregg Frazer said...

Just out of curiosity, Mr. Van Dyke, where does one find rights, consent of the governed, or sovereignty of the people in the Bible?

If they're not there, but just in "Christian" political theology, what makes that political theology "Christian?"

Tom Van Dyke said...

Just out of curiosity, Mr. Van Dyke


Curiosity, Dr. Frazer? How much reply do I owe your "curiosity" as a courtesy? ;-)


I'll reply sincerely though the hit-and-run nature of your engagements with me to date has left me quite a bit...gun-shy. But perhaps it's been my own, um, passionate manner to blame for the running part.

To business, then, offered in good faith:

_________

where does one find rights, consent of the governed, or sovereignty of the people in the Bible?

If they're not there, but just in "Christian" political theology, what makes that political theology "Christian?"



At present, your Bible-only ground rules--your method, open only to the most literal of scriptural interpretations and banning all others--leave only one possible interpretation of what is Biblically permissible and therefore God's will. I have your book.

https://www.amazon.com/God-against-Revolution-Loyalist-Political/dp/0700626964

After our dozen years together now, Gregg, I trust your scholarship that there are there are no factual inaccuracies.

It would seem ungracious to say you have stacked the deck and rigged the game--but you have decided which cards are acceptable to play and what the rules for playing them are--so since you control the permissible bounds of discussion, what is there left to discuss?

If we must accept your premises, no other conclusions are possible. You decide that only Biblical cards may be played, and you decide their value. Of course you have won your own game.


where does one find rights, consent of the governed, or sovereignty of the people in the Bible?

If they're not there, but just in "Christian" political theology, what makes that political theology "Christian?"




If you wish to dig in and engage, Gregg--Dr. Frazer, whichever you prefer--and ask me to invest my time and good faith in this--we must first parse your premise[s] as stated here. I also think it would be highly instructive in sorting out your current grenade toss with [Dr.] Mark David Hall.

You might be pleasantly surprised to find I'm a better moderator than an advocate or polemicist--and enjoy it more, since I believe clarity is the greatest friend of truth.

My objections in these things are almost always formal. You could look it up.

[cont'd]


Tom Van Dyke said...

To laying out the formal premises and definitions, if a discussion or debate were to take place:



GREGG FRAZER: where does one find rights, consent of the governed, or sovereignty of the people in the Bible?

If they're not there, but just in "Christian" political theology, what makes that political theology "Christian?"



TVD: I must challenge your use of the Bible as the only acceptable authority of political theology.

I also challenge your implicit premise that only a fundamentalist/literalist reading of the Biblical text is the only one that conforms to God's will.

I object to your placement of "scare quotes" in "'Christian' political theology." The capital letters work quite well without the ironic load of "scare quotes."

There should be no scare quotes in this discussion--or any sincere discussion.

Christian political theology is a functional umbrella term for scholars, as well as Reformed Resistance Theory, just as Leo Strauss uses Roman Catholic Social Science without irony or scare quotes.

The good faith reader gets it.

Since you, Gregg, as the essential part of your argument, are unwilling to concede as "Christian" many things that to the historian or sociologist would be routinely considered Christian, there is our impasse, and to extend it to a formal verbal impasse only litters the field.

You are still insisting on theological distinctions. The historian--and I think the anthropologist or sociologist--is even better equipped to help us diffuse the tension here.

The anthropologist has no stake in the game. This "Christ" seems to be special, whatever he is: Trinitarians and unitarians sit cheek-by-jowl in the same churches, sharing their pulpits, even. Not happy about it, mind you. Jesus was God. No, he was just the Messiah!


But they didn't kill each other, so that's cool. Yankees or Red Sox? Still, they're all baseball fans. That's how Protestantism rolls. If I'm in town, I'll come over to your ballpark and take in a game. Who I cheer for is secondary. I don't care who wins, really. I love baseball, so I just want want to take in a good game.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark David Hall said...

Tom makes an important point here. Christian political theology is a Christian way of thinking about politics grounded in Scripture and natural revelation. It does not require every idea to be clearly supported by a Bible verse.

Consider a Christian approach to religious liberty. One might appeal to MT 22:21 (give unto caesar...) or the Golden Rule to support religious liberty for all citizens, but I'm not sure they clearly do and it is certainly the case that many Christian rulers have not read them in this way. Yet folks like William Penn and Roger Williams developed robust arguments for religious liberty from Christian premises before Locke wrote his Letter on Toleration, and Christians have continued to develop and expand these arguments and find them to be persuasive (see, for instance, Nicholas Wolterstorff, “A Religious Argument for the Civil Right to Freedom of Religious Exercise, Drawn from American History,” Wake Forest Law Review (Summer 2001): 535–56). Of course the two verses mentioned above play an important role in these arguments.

To state the obvious, religious liberty is not a uniquely or distinctly Christian idea. One could come to support it for any number of reasons--through reason alone, based on Confucius's "Silver Rule," for prudential reasons, etc. But this reality does not mean that Penn, Williams, and Wolterstorf do not embrace religious liberty for Christian reasons.

And it might also be the case that later advocates of religious liberty find arguments that are not clearly Christian for religious liberty and make use of them, as is arguably the case with New Light and New Siders who used Locke's Letter on Toleration to help create room for their approach to Christianity during the First Great Awakening.

Gregg Frazer said...

You misunderstood my intent, Mr. Van Dyke. I was not trying to provoke a fight or to goad you or to drop any bombs.

In your first entry above, you refer to the Bible and to Christian political theory as potential sources of rights, consent of the governed, and sovereignty of the people in the Constitution.

I was sincerely asking you where you think that they are found in your interpretation of the Bible. And, if they are not found there (from your perspective), but are instead found in what you refer to as Christian political theory, then (from your perspective) what makes that political theory Christian? Why is that an appropriate description of that particular political theory? I think it’s a simple, straightforward question.

[I did not intend "scare quotation marks" -- but to specify individual words (isn't that a normal literary practice?) and to reflect that fact that the meaning of them has not yet been determined. It is certainly not defined in the book that we're discussing.]

Is political theory Christian simply or definitively because it is produced by men who self-identify as Christians? Or must there be some controlling or substantive aspect or characteristic of it? I.e. if a group of Christians proclaim the Green Bay Packers the Christian team of the NFL, does that make them the Christian team? If they prefer steak to chicken, is that then the Christian position on food preference? Or is there some substantive, qualitative standard or basis for accurately or properly affixing the adjective "Christian" to something? [sorry, I can't avoid quotation marks here -- I need to be clear as to the term]

The book we’re discussing makes claims about Christian roots/bases, but never defines what Christian means. So I’m wondering what you think of when you see that term – that’s all. It’s a perfectly innocent question. Personally, I don’t know how one can determine whether America was founded as a Christian nation if we don’t know what Christian (or, for that matter, founded) means.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Asked and answered, Gregg.

TVD: I must challenge your use of the Bible as the only acceptable authority of political theology.


MDH: Christian political theology is a Christian way of thinking about politics grounded in Scripture and natural revelation. It does not require every idea to be clearly supported by a Bible verse.

Consider a Christian approach to religious liberty. One might appeal to MT 22:21 (give unto caesar...) or the Golden Rule to support religious liberty for all citizens, but I'm not sure they clearly do and it is certainly the case that many Christian rulers have not read them in this way. Yet folks like William Penn and Roger Williams developed robust arguments for religious liberty from Christian premises before Locke wrote his Letter on Toleration, and Christians have continued to develop and expand these arguments and find them to be persuasive (see, for instance, Nicholas Wolterstorff, “A Religious Argument for the Civil Right to Freedom of Religious Exercise, Drawn from American History,” Wake Forest Law Review (Summer 2001): 535–56). Of course the two verses mentioned above play an important role in these arguments.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JR: The "Christianity" of the American founding was diverse and the political theology was latitudinarian and non-sectarian.


I don't think TVD or MDH have disagreed with this anywhere in this discussion, Jon.

Gregg Frazer doesn't disagree either, except he puts "scare quotes" around "Christianity."


He argues it's not Christianity at all. Do you disagree? Does Gregg disagree?


Discuss.

Anonymous said...

My editor asked me to take it out, but because I knew people like Gregg would read the book I insisted that the following definition of orthodox Christianity be left in it: "By “orthodox” I mean that they adhered to fundamental Christian doctrines
as articulated in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds." What is unclear about this definition, Gregg?

Every book must have a focus, and this one is political. I make no claims about the founders' views of, say, limited atonement and irresistible grace, as they are not relevant for this project. But I point to a number of Christian doctrines that I think clearly impacted their approach to politics, such as the fact that humans are created in the image of God and are sinful. One can reach similar conclusions for other than Christian reasons, but in 18th century America I think Christianity explains the most.

Mark David Hall said...

Anonymous is Mark David Hall. I pushed the wrong button.