In Did America Have a Christian Founding? Mark David Hall explores a perennially debated topic that needs a proper evaluation now more than ever. An increasingly secular national culture has grown ever zealous in seeking to banish religion from the public square, citing ad nauseam a “wall of separation” as the authoritative descriptor of the relationship between religion and the Constitution. Discussion of the American founding remains shrouded in myths, both from those who claim all the founders were orthodox Christians and from those who suggest the founders were primarily deists.
But how would a Christian founding look, anyway? Although the founders identified as Christians, that measure isn’t particularly helpful on its own. Determining “sincerity” of belief or whether the founders conducted themselves like Christians is fraught with subjectivity. And a lack of a more complete historical record renders impossible any definitive conclusions that all the founders held orthodox Christian beliefs. Thus, Mark David Hall argues that “America’s founders were influenced in significant ways by Christian ideas when they declared independence from Great Britain, drafted constitutions, and passed laws to protect religious liberty.” Furthermore, he explains what that means for today’s debates on law and public policy.
This balanced account offers an invaluable resource to academics and non-academics alike, condensing Hall’s 30-year corpus of research on the American colonial period, religious liberty, and constitutional history into a slim volume of just over 200 pages.
Essential to Hall’s argument is something he calls “the Founders’ Syllogism”—that “every founding-era statesman was committed to the proposition that republican government required a moral citizenry, and that religion was necessary for morality.” Hall asserts that essentially all the founders referred to Christianity when they discussed “religion,” noting that scripture was frequently the basis of arguments for liberty made by both religious and civic leaders. Religion in the founders’ view also ensured accountability (through a belief in divine sanctions on immoral behavior in the afterlife), as well as providing an internal means of discipline for citizens.
Perhaps the most popular objection raised against Hall’s thesis is the argument that most of the founders were deists. As Did America Have a Christian Founding? relates, popular authors and scholars alike frequently trot out “the religious views of … [a] select fraternity,” and then “almost inevitably concede that not all founders were as enlightened as the ones they profile.”
Deists typically rejected orthodox Christianity and, most critically, believed in a God that was removed from the affairs of men. Hall believes the evidence of the founders holding such views is tenuous at best. The decisive point on which his case turns is the founders’ belief that “God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations,” which he evidences through countless founding documents. Furthermore, Hall maintains, even if some of the most “famous” founders were deists or theistic rationalists, they are not necessarily representative of the other founders and/or the founding generation. According to Hall, a significant number of founding-era Americans were Reformed or Calvinist—yet “these Americans are underrepresented by the eight founders regularly discussed by those who contend the founders were deists.”
The strongest section in Did America Have a Christian Founding? discusses how the founders’ view of human nature influenced their views on government and the mechanisms they placed in the American Constitution. Hall demonstrates the significance of Calvinism in the education, culture, and theological perspectives of founding-era Americans, while also rebutting the common contention that Enlightenment thinkers most significantly shaped the founders’ thought. Calvinism, which “emphasizes the corrosive effects of the fall of man,” provided them with a balanced view of human nature, as opposed to the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of man. The result we see in America’s government is a representative system containing a series of constitutional checks and balances and separation of powers—not idealistically elevating man, but rather restraining his worst tendencies.
Particularly relevant to America’s contemporary political challenges is Hall’s discussion of the Supreme Court’s problematic approach to the First Amendment starting with Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Because Everson determined that select texts from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison represented all the founders’ views, it concluded that the establishment clause necessitates a strict separation of church and state. After Everson, jurists and scholars exaggerated (1) how much Madison and Jefferson advocated for separation and (2) how much those two influenced the First Amendment’s crafters. Meanwhile, jurists have ignored the contributions of countless other founders, including pivotal leaders like Roger Sherman, who served on key committees and participated in debates on the First Amendment during its drafting and ratification.
According to Hall, a true originalist interpretation of the First Amendment would find it constitutional for “governments to continue to encourage religion today.” In the founding era, both state and “national leaders encouraged religious practices in a variety of ways,” whether through issuing calls for national prayer and fasting, selecting and paying Army chaplains, or appealing to scripture in policy debates. While many of these practices continue today, in the founding era, national encouragement of religion was often more explicitly Christian. Hall remarks that, as president, John Adams issued calls to prayer and fasting that were “robustly Christian,” referencing the Trinity and encouraging citizens to confess their sins to God and ask for forgiveness.
In further discussion on the matter of church and state, Hall addresses the frequently misunderstood question of disestablishment. He rebuts the assertion that the founders’ views on religious liberty primarily stemmed from a desire to be freed from religion to embrace godless rationalism. Though disestablishment took place in many states following independence, debates on the subject were primarily concerned with what system promoted the flourishing of genuine religion. Many believed state coercion in religious matters was ineffective, simply encouraging hypocrisy, and that freedom of conscience was imperative for sincere belief to prevail. In Hall’s view, “an important reason Americans embraced religious liberty was because of their Christian convictions,” as “biblical and theological arguments played key roles in defining and supporting what many founders called ‘the sacred rights of conscience.’”
A significant question which Hall does not explicitly address is whether the founders had a coherent natural rights (or natural law) framework which undergirded their political theory. He notes the founders frequently appealed to the authority of natural rights and natural law, concepts that for them were steeped in a Christian context. However, he remarks that they “seldom addressed these subjects in a systematic manner,” except for James Wilson. Does their omission of a “systematic” treatment of natural rights exclude the possibility of a coherent natural rights framework? This point is left unclear. Granted, Hall’s work is primarily intended to be an accessible resource and, as such, is not exhaustive. (Hall does plan to publish a second volume addressing further concerns related to his central question.) But Did America Have a Christian Founding? might have benefited from an augmented discussion of the founders’ views of natural law and natural rights.
In an era where America’s fundamental constitutional order is under attack, Hall’s book serves as a refreshing reminder of America’s first principles. Hall explicitly states a key theme in the book is that the “founders embraced a robust understanding of religious liberty”—a pertinent reminder in a climate where major presidential candidates myopically express their desire to strip traditional churches of their tax-exempt status. Our public leaders would be well-served to learn how, as John Adams said, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, [and] is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”