Monday, November 4, 2019

A Christian founding?

In "Founding Deists and Other Unicorns" James Bruce reviews Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark David Hall. He begins by asking "What determines whether or not America had a Christian founding? .... Did the members of the founding generation identify themselves as Christians? .... But that doesn’t tell us much. People can be bad believers, or they can be good Christians self-consciously founding a secular regime. .... And there’s a theological issue, too. At what point does a historical figure become a non-Christian due to his privately held unorthodox beliefs, even if he publicly identifies himself as a Christian?"

It's a good, informative, review/essay, from which:
.... Let’s consider one concrete case in order to illustrate Hall’s method. In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a bill to tax individuals for the support of their local churches. James Madison wrote his celebrated Memorial in the summer of 1785 in the hopes of preventing the bill’s passage that autumn. On a standard telling of the American story, an Enlightenment Madison saved the country from religious fanatics. Is that, in fact, what happened?

Not at all. Hall notes that “an earlier evangelical petition” received far more signatures, by a margin of 4,899 to 1,552 (out of 10,929 Virginians who signed any petition on the matter). That petition said Henry’s bill was “contrary to the spirit of the Gospel” and that the church was not helped “when Constantine first established Christianity by human laws.” Lest we think Madison’s Memorial spawned the other petitions, including this evangelical one, Hall notes that the evangelical petition was written at least seventh months before Madison wrote his Memorial. Furthermore, Madison’s Memorial itself includes “a number of overtly religious arguments,” suggesting a broader purview than the unaccompanied Enlightenment. And let’s be clear: almost half the Virginians who signed a petition signed the evangelical one, thereby endorsing its Christian appeals for religious freedom. The Memorial by itself, based on its share of signatories, could not have carried the day. The evangelical petition, all by itself, could have. ....
.... Hall identifies eight great founders regularly claimed for deism: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Allen, and Paine. Hall gives us plenty of reasons to question the alleged deism of most of these men. But he observes, quite persuasively, that even if these founders were all deists, they still had to persuade (from a secular point of view) the vast unenlightened hordes clinging to God and their guns. Eight men—even eight great and influential men—still represent a minuscule segment of the national population.

More importantly, these eight represent only a tiny sample of the people we call founders. Hall works through the founders by denominational affiliation, noting that “there is little reason to doubt, and much evidence to indicate” their orthodoxy. From Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, on the Reformed side, to John Jay and Patrick Henry on the Anglican side (just to name a few), Hall offers a laundry list of Christian founders.

By contrast, in the founding period, only Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine offered defenses of deism. Hall argues persuasively that Allen’s Reason: The Only Oracle of Man exercised little influence (selling less than 200 copies) and that Paine’s Age of Reason received almost universal scorn. Hall offers a veritable who’s who of founders that criticized Paine’s book.... (much more)
The argument isn't that because the nation was predominantly Christian then it should be a theocracy now. It wasn't a theocracy then and it won't be ever — or at least until the end of time. This argument matters simply to inform an understanding of the constituting documents and to correct what many non-believers prefer to believe.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.