By Julia Shaw
Few historical questions generate as much controversy as this one—and do so on such a regular basis. Every few months or so, following some public pronouncement on America’s Christian roots or some court ruling pertaining to the First Amendment, the nation is subjected to a heated, but essentially sterile, debate on the Christian character of the American nation.
On the one side are those who view any mention of God in the public square as a dangerous threat to religious liberty and a veiled move to transform America into a theocracy. To make their case for a radical separation of religion and politics, they trot out the tired trope that the Founders were all deists, invoke the “godless Constitution,” and rummage through the Founders’ voluminous writing to find some quote that seems to buttress their case. The perennial favorite seems to be Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which the President spoke of the “building of a wall separation between church and state.”
On the other side are those who argue that America had a Christian Founding in the strict sense of the term and that it fundamentally is—and should remain—a Christian nation. The Founders (with an exception or two perhaps) were orthodox Christians who created a Christian nation for a Christian people so that Christianity could flourish. These proponents also pore through the Founders’ letters and speeches and count any reference of God as proof positive that the Founders were devout Christians. They don’t even mind quoting the occasional Supreme Court decision—so long, of course, as it affirms America’s Christian character.
Soon, of course, the media moves on to the next controversy du jour and the debate quells, without advancing beyond the usual fault lines. The Founders’ nuanced position on the question is almost always ignored.
So did America have a Christian Founding?
In a new essay, Mark David Hall, a scholar of religion and the Founding, shows how the two most popular answers to the query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—distort the Founders’ views.
Hall reminds fervent secularists that the Founders did not support a strict separation of church and state that requires political leaders to avoid religious language and public spaces to be stripped of religious symbols. And he cautions those who would succumb to an overly zealous Christian reading of the Founding by reminding them that the Founders did not create a theocracy and that they were, to a person, committed to protecting the religious liberties of all citizens, regardless of faith, so long as they “demean themselves as good citizens.”
Hall does, however, recognize the influence that Christian ideas had on the Founders and identifies the three major areas of agreement with respect to religious liberty and church–state relations at the time of the Founding:
1) Religious liberty is a right for all—Christian and non-Christian alike—and must be protected;
2) The national government may not create an established church; and
3) Religious references and appeals to God are appropriate in the public square.
In short, while America did not have a Christian Founding in the sense of creating a theocracy, its Founding was deeply shaped by Christian moral truths. More importantly, it created a regime that was hospitable to Christians but also to practitioners of other religions.