I recently had the opportunity to listen to a debate between Mark Hall and Steven Green on the topic of the Christian foundation of America. Hall has written a book defending the idea that America had a Christian foundation, and Green has written a book in defense of the opposite view. I obviously agree with Hall, but I thought that he could have done a better job of refuting some of Green’s claims (and he probably does so in his book). Since I was taking notes anyway, I thought that I would share a few of my objections to Green’s claims.
1. The Christian Founding Myth
Beginning at the 22 minute mark, Green presented what was probably his most direct challenge to Hall’s position when he claimed that the idea of America having a Christian founding was a myth that was deliberately constructed by second and third generations of Americans.
This seems like an unusual response given the fact that John Adams (a first generation American) once wrote to Thomas Jefferson (another first generation American) about the fact that America was founded on the “general principles of Christianity.” Now, I realize that there is some dispute over whether Adams was actually referring to Christian principles or not, and I think that I’ve presented a fairly comprehensive analysis of this letter in a previous article. However, even if we were to grant (contrary to fact) that Adams wasn’t really referring to Christian principles in his letter, that still leaves us with the fact that he used language consistent with the idea of a Christian founding in private discourse with Thomas Jefferson, the one founder who was by far the least likely to object to the exclusion of any reference to Christian principles. This is hardly consistent with Green’s claim that the idea of a Christian founding was a myth created by future generations of Americans.
By the way, I find it intriguing that Green never once mentioned this letter in his book “Inventing a Christian America,” but this kind of oversight seems to be par for the course for Green. For example, when I was searching through his book to see how he dealt with the letter from Adams, I came across several other omissions such as his claim on page 223 that:
“The first significant application of the maxim that Christianity formed part of American common law occurred in an 1811 New York case, People v. Ruggles, in a decision written by Chief Justice James Kent.”
Maybe it just slipped Green’s mind that James Wilson, one of only six men to sign both the Declaration and the Constitution, asserted that “Christianity is a part of the common law” in his famous Lectures on Law presented between 1790 and 1792. Surely, Green isn’t of the opinion that a statement from James Wilson about the nature of the common law somehow fails to rise to the level of significance. Regardless of whether he agrees with Wilson’s statement, the fact that he fails to mention it at all just as he failed to even mention the letter from Adams tends to taint his claims with the odor of confirmation bias.
2. Religious Influence on the Constitution
At the 33:55 mark in the debate, Green made the claim that “the Constitution ... does not have any type of religious impulse in it at all.” This is a very common claim made by those who hold to Green’s view, but it is either a catastrophic display of ignorance or yet another example of confirmation bias.
The claim is presented in absolute terms, and all one has to do in order to disprove an absolute is to provide a single counter example. Such a counter example exists in a speech that Benjamin Franklin gave before the Constitutional Convention. No, I’m not referring to Franklin’s attempt to open the sessions of the Convention with prayer. I’m referring to Franklin’s argument that “We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in rulers, that they should be men hating covetousness.” As I wrote in my book Franklin on Faith:
There are many who argue that there was no significant reference to the Bible during the Constitutional Convention. Frazer, for example, wrote that:
“There was precious little reference to God or the Bible in the Constitutional debates. There were a few casual references to Scripture, but they were offered only to illustrate points already made, not as a basis for principle – despite the Bible’s supposed role as the foundation for the whole document and all its parts.” (Frazer, Religious Beliefs, 219)
Claims such as this one are more than a little deceptive for the simple reason that we do not have a complete record of the debates of the Constitutional Convention. All that we have are a few collections of abbreviated notes and a random sampling of pre-written speeches. The most comprehensive record available comes from the notes of James Madison, but even this account is filled with short summarizations of lengthy speeches and debates. In fact, there is one place in which Madison wrote a single paragraph about a speech given by Mr. Martin and then said, “This was the substance of a speech which was continued more than three hours.” (Madison, 249)
The deception of this claim is further emphasized by the fact that there is also no mention of Locke, Montesquieu, Sydney or Harrington and only two passing references to Blackstone in Madison’s notes, and yet it is common to hear the same historians claim that the Constitution was founded on the works of these men. In reality, Madison made few references to any of the sources which may have been cited in the various debates. His purpose appears to have been to keep a record of the bare essence of each day’s proceedings for his own personal benefit. He made no attempt to preserve an accurate account for posterity.
In light of these facts it is very significant to note that Madison recorded Franklin’s quotation of Exodus 18:21. In direct contradiction to Frazer’s claim, this reference to Scripture played a major role in the debates regarding the Constitution. Franklin quoted this passage in response to a proposal by Mr. Pinckney that the ownership of a significant amount of property be one of the requirements for those seeking to represent their state in the House of Representatives. This proposal had been debated unsuccessfully for several days when Franklin finally stood up and presented his biblical argument against it. Madison records that after Franklin finished speaking:
“The motion of Mr. Pinckney was rejected by so general a no, that the states were not called.” (Madison, 403)
Franklin’s reference to the teachings of Scripture was the deciding factor in the decision to reject a property requirement for Representatives.
The fact that Green not only ignores Franklin’s argument both in the debate and in his book but also claims that such references do not exist has major implications for his trustworthiness as a historian. But his error goes much further than a single overlooked citation. In a subsequent article on the same topic, I provided a list of nine additional references to Scripture that can be found in Madison’s notes. In another article, I presented no less than 49 correlations between the Bible and Constitution, and in my short ebook We the People: The Biblical Precedent for Popular Sovereignty, I present a concise history of the concept of popular sovereignty in Christian literature beginning with God’s own recognition of this concept in the Old Testament and tracing it all the way down to the founders themselves. Green’s claim that the Constitution was not influenced by religion at all is simply ludicrous.
3. Religious Freedom
Throughout the debate, Green referenced the concept of religious freedom as if the development of that concept in America was evidence against the claim that America had a Christian founding. Green takes a slightly more nuanced approach to this concept in his book where he admits that all of those who argued for religious freedom did so on theological grounds, but he hastens to add that they were also influenced by various Enlightenment philosophers. It is interesting to note that Green does not do the reverse and point out that all of his famed Enlightenment authors were influenced by even earlier theological arguments for religious freedom. Once again, I suppose it just completely slipped his mind that the two Enlightenment thinkers to whom Green attributes the idea of religious freedom wrote their arguments many, many years after those same arguments had already gained renown among theologians.
The very first English book on freedom of religion was written in 1611 by the founder of the first Baptist church in England, Thomas Helwys. Here is an excerpt from the book which Helwys wrote twenty-one years before John Locke was even born:
And we bow ourselves to the earth before our lord the king in greatest humbleness, beseeching the king to judge righteous judgement herein, whether there be so unjust a thing and of so great cruel tyranny under the sun as to force men's consciences in their religion to God, seeing that if they err, they must pay the price of their transgressions with the loss of their souls. Oh, let the king judge is it not most equal that men should choose their religion themselves, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgement seat of God to answer for themselves, when it shall be no excuse for them to say we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion by the king or by them that had authority from him?
And let our lord the king that is a man of knowledge yet further consider that if the king should by his power bring his people to the truth, and they walk in the truth and die in the profession of it in obedience to the king's power, either for fear or love, shall they be saved? The king knows they shall not. But they that obey the truth in love, whoom the love of God constrains, their obedience only shall be acceptable to God. (I Corinthians 13) Thus may our lord the king see that by his kingly power he cannot cause or make men bring an acceptable sacrifice to God.
And will the king make men (whether they will or no) bring an unacceptable sacrifice to God? And shall the king herein think he does please God? God forbid. If the king will please God in such service, then must he seek to 'convert sinners from going astray,' (James 5:20) 'and turn men to righteousness,' (Daniel 12:3) not with his sword of justice but 'by the foolishness of preaching.' For that is the means whereby God has appointed to save them that believe. (I Corinthians 1:21, 27)...
And let the king call to mind that which no doubt the king has often read in the Gospel According to Luke (9:52, 56), that when the Samaritans would not receive Christ, and that his disciples said, 'Will you that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them,' Jesus rebuked them and said, 'You know not of what spirit you are. The Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives but to save them.' Whereby the king does see that Christ will have no man's life touched for his cause. If the Samaritans will not receive him, he passes them by. If the Gadarenes pray him to depart, he leaves them. If any refuse to receive his disciples, he only bids them 'shake off the dust of their feet for a witness against them.' Here is no sword of justice at all required or permitted to smite any for refusing Christ...
Let not our lord the king suffer this sword to be used to rule and keep in obedience the people of God and of the king to the laws, statutes, and ordinances of Christ, which appertain to the well-governing and ruling of the kingdom of Christ, which is heavenly and endures forever, the sword of whose kingdom is spiritual, by the power of which sword only Christ's subjects are to be ruled and kept in obedience to himself, by the which sword our lord the king must be kept in obedience himself, if he be a disciple of Christ and subject of Christ's kingdom. And this takes away (without gainsaying) all the kingly power and authority of our lord the king in the kingdom of Christ. For he cannot be both a king and a subject in one and the same kingdom.
After publishing his book, Helwys sent a copy along with a letter to King James I and was promptly sentenced to prison where he died four years later. His book survived, however, as did the church that he founded, and the doctrine of religious freedom has been proclaimed by English speaking Baptist churches ever since.
Furthermore, it is a well known fact that the concept of true freedom of religion was introduced in America by the Baptists of Rhode Island more than fifty years before John Locke wrote his Letter on Toleration. George Bancroft recorded that, in November of 1658, the colonists of Rhode Island requested that Roger Williams plead their case before the king that they would “not be compelled to exercise any civil power over men's consciences.” They declared that it was their goal “to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand, and best be maintained, with a full liberty of religious concernments.” The king consented to their request, and in July of 1663, he signed the Charter of Rhode Island which included the following statement:
“Our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.”
Then, in May of 1664, the legislature of that colony passed the first law in American history which established true religious freedom. That law stated that:
“No person shall at any time hereafter be any ways called in question for any difference of opinion in matters of religion.”
In May of 1665, the legislature reaffirmed this law with a statement declaring that religious freedom had been granted in Rhode Island ever since Roger Williams began the settlement there in 1636. Their statement said:
“Liberty to all persons, as to the worship of God, had been a principle maintained in the colony from the very beginning thereof; and it was much in their hearts to preserve the same liberty forever.”
And then in 1680, they issued yet another statement declaring:
“We leave every man to walk as God persuades his heart; all our people enjoy freedom of conscience.”
All of this occurred prior to John Locke’s 1689 publication of his Letter on Toleration which Green points to as the true source for America’s history of religious freedom. After relaying the above facts about Rhode Island, Bancroft came to the conclusion that: “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was, from the first, the trophy of the Baptists.” Of course, Green disagrees with Bancroft’s conclusion, but he never even mentions Helwys, and he dismissed Rhode Island’s history of religious freedom with the ridiculous claim that:
“The Charter’s declarations were essentially defensive, not proclaiming a model for the world to emulate (and neither announcing an invitation for religious dissenters).”
I could go on. In both the debate and in his book, Green consistently overstated his case. He made lots of references to various historical documents, but many of them were misconstrued, and most of the documents which disprove his claims were simply ignored. I appreciate Green’s willingness to engage in the debate, but I found his arguments … less than persuasive even when I considered his longer treatment of them in his book. Hall’s proposition that America did have a Christian founding is far better supported by the historical record than Green’s claim to the contrary.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
Contact Us if you would like to schedule Bill to speak to your church, group, or club.
"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)