(Law & Liberty) We need to know what the word plethora means before we can say we have a plethora of piñatas. So, too, we cannot consider whether or not America had a Christian founding without having an idea of what the phrase Christian founding actually means. At the start of Did America Have a Christian Founding?, Mark David Hall rightly analyzes the question his book asks. What determines whether or not America had a Christian founding? Hall considers a variety of options. Did the members of the founding generation identify themselves as Christians? Almost everyone did, with the exception of about two thousand Jews. But that doesn’t tell us much. People can be bad believers, or they can be good Christians self-consciously founding a secular regime. Sincerity of belief can be difficult to judge. Appealing to people’s practices only gives us a partial view. 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?
Hall sidesteps these thorny questions about people—though he has shown an ability to tackle them well elsewhere—to focus on the ideas themselves. Were the founders influenced by Christian ideas? That’s the question Hall wants to pursue. And his answer is yes:
Book after book has been written about whether the founders were most influenced by Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and so on. I contend that an excellent case can be made that Christianity had a profound influence on the founding generation.
Moreover, Hall holds that “to the extent to which America’s founders utilized these thinkers, they borrowed ideas or arguments that were compatible with orthodox Christianity, and, in fact, were often developed before the Enlightenment by indisputably Christian thinkers.”
The temptation in a book like this one is to make exciting claims to gain an audience, while playing fast and loose with history, or to do such minute technical work that even specialists have to drink coffee to press on. Hall’s sense of balance between these two extremes is perfect.
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[Editor’s Note: This article was written by James Bruce. It originally appeared at Law & Liberty, title and image changed.]
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