Did America Have A Christian Founding? Interview with Mark David Hall
Written by Managing Editor on March 10, 2020
Jesse Sumpter: Thank you for doing this interview, Mark. Your book Did America Have A Christian Founding is a wonderful resource for those interested in knowing more about America’s Christian founding. Some people would disagree with your thesis. Why do some people question America’s Christian founding?
Mark David Hall: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jesse. Far too many scholars and popular authors have downplayed the influence of Christianity in the American founding. Some do so because they have an ideological agenda, but others are simply bad historians. Among the most common errors is to look closely at just a handful of founders, usually Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. These were indisputably great men, but as I show in my book they were also profoundly unrepresentative of the literally hundreds of civic leaders who helped the colonies break from Great Britain and create our constitutional order.
JS: It seems that the phrase “separation of church and state” is often misunderstood today to mean that the founders wanted a high and impregnable wall of separation. What did America’s founders think about civic authorities promoting religion?
MDH: In the late 18th century, Christians led the opposition to established state churches because many had concluded establishments hurt true Christianity. But it doesn’t follow that they built a wall of separation between faith and public life. The First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause essentially means what it says; the United States cannot have an established church. But this in no way prohibits Congress from providing military and legislative chaplains, presidents from issuing calls for prayer, state and local governments from utilizing religious images and symbols in public spaces, and so on.
JS: What is one error that people commonly make about America’s founders that you hope to correct in this book?
MDH: Scholar after scholar has claimed that “most” or “many” of America’s founders were deists. Deism is often defined as a rationalist theological system where God creates the world but then does not intervene in the affairs of men and nations. In my book, I demonstrate that no more than a handful of America’s founders were deists.
JS: You discuss the issue of religious liberty in America’s founding. It seems that religious liberty is a principle that comes from Christianity rather than from other religious or secular groups. In order to protect religious liberty today, it seems that we need an American government that is more Christian in law and practice than it currently is. So not just a government that is generically religious or even secular, but one that is robustly Christian. What are your thoughts on that sentiment?
MDH: America’s founders were influenced by their Christian convictions to embrace a very robust understanding of religious liberty—one that protects the ability of all citizens, whatever their religion, to freely exercise their faiths. But one does not need to be a Christian to understand or be committed to what many founders called “the sacred rights of conscience.” Personally, if I had a choice of voting for a fiscally responsible, pro-life, and pro-religious liberty Muslim or a fiscally irresponsible, pro-choice, and anti-religious liberty Christian, I would vote for the former in a heartbeat.
JS: Is there a particular writing from America’s founders that you think Americans today should read (assuming they have read the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Federalist/Anti-Federalist papers)?
MDH: My frequent collaborator Daniel Dreisbach and I edited a massive collection of primary source documents on religious liberty and church-state relations in early America entitled The Sacred Rights of Conscience. It can be purchased on Amazon.com for $14.50. Everyone interested in these questions should have a copy! One of my favorite documents in it is an evangelical petition from citizens in Westmoreland County opposing religious establishments for profoundly Christian reasons.
JS: You list a lot of great resources in your book. Another reason I encourage everyone to get a copy of your book. After people read your book, is there another good resource that you would want to highlight for our readers if they want to continue learning more about these important issues?
MDH: I highly recommend Daniel L. Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers. He demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Holy Scriptures had a tremendous influence in the founding era.
JS: Thank you for your time, Mark. Really appreciate it.
MDH: Thanks so much for the invitation, Jesse.
Mark David Hall is the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is also associated faculty at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and senior fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He has written, edited, or co-edited a dozen books on religion and politics in America and is a nationally recognized expert on the religious freedom. He writes for the online publications Law & Liberty and Intercollegiate Studies Review and has appeared regularly on a number of radio shows, including Jerry Newcomb’s Truth in Action, Tim Wildman’s Today’s Issues, and the Janet Mefferd Show.