David Schrock: The books were going to talk about today: Did America Have a Christian Founding? as well as Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land—certainly looking forward to those. Mark, maybe just give us some background on yourself. How did you come to be a historian? How did you begin studying these things about America’s founding?
Mark David Hall: Well, thank you.
So, I had a privilege of interning for the Christian Legal Society, both in high school and college. And my plan was to go and become an attorney and litigate church state cases, and I even took the LSAT as a senior at Wheaton College. And yet in thinking about it, reflecting about it, I decided my gifts, talents, and abilities and interests really lie in the academy more than in litigating cases. So I shifted direction, and I went off and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia doing American political thought stuff. And yet I got dragged into these debates because the U. S. Supreme Court has been crystal clear that we must interpret the First Amendment in light of the founders’ views, and yet the Supreme Court justices by and large—at least the progressive ones—profoundly distorted their views.
So this got me into writing and editing books on these subjects and trying to bring out lesser-known documents. So made a little cottage industry of that—writing about the American founding, religious liberty, church state relations. What’s been fun over the last five years or so is I’ve been brought into some actual cases as an expert witness, helping to litigate them with the Alliance Defending Freedom or other organizations. So, it’s coming full circle and back to what I thought it was going to do, and yet I’m doing in a way that I never would’ve expected I could do it.
David Schrock: That’s wonderful. Well, again, brother, we’re thankful for the time that you’re giving to us here to talk about some of these important things and certainly what’s being related in the culture around us.
I think over the last number of years we’ve seen Christian Nationalism as both a bogeyman that has been out there and others have taken on that title and kind of owned that and said, “Yes, we are that.” So, we’re certainly thinking about that. And we’d love to think more today about America’s founding and the debate that surrounds that. Was America founded as a Christian nation? Others have said the exact opposite, that it was a secular nation from the beginning. Others have made middle ground there. Help us to see the lay of the land of what are the arguments for and against America’s founding being a Christian nation.
Mark David Hall: Sure. Well, I’m treating the question a little bit differently as I do with my book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? And what you see is you have two sets of answers. Academics are overwhelmingly on the side of “absolutely not.” For them, the founders were deists, it was influenced by a secularized Lockean liberalism, and maybe there were a few Orthodox Christians bouncing around, but they’re effectively irrelevant.
Now, that’s not all academics, of course. You have a number of good folks out there making good arguments, but still, most of the literature says that. In reaction to that, you had Christian popular authors—and by that I don’t mean anything derogatory, just they don’t have a background in the academy, they don’t have PhDs, but they kind of sensed intuitively this is not right. So they wrote books published by Christian presses, wherein they said, “No, America had a wonderful Christian founding. Virtually all the founders were Christians, and they were Orthodox Christians. And even ones like Thomas Jefferson were more Christian than we had thought.” So they overstate the case way too much on the other side, and since they aren’t academics, they tend to make errors that make it pretty easy for professional academics to poke holes in their arguments.
Now I think they’re actually more right than wrong, but still, it’s problematic. So, I’ve attempted to argue very carefully as a trained scholar that America did have a Christian founding. And one of the very first things I do is lay out what I mean by a “Christian founding.”
I could just mean that all Americans of European descent are Christians. They would have identified themselves as Christians. Well if that’s the case—98 percent Protestant, 2 percent Roman Catholic, maybe 2,000 Jews in four or five American cities—they were overwhelmingly a people who identified themselves as Christians. But they might’ve been heterodox Christians. They might’ve been Christians trying to explicitly found a secular political order. So that’s not very interesting.
I then get into the possibility that we could say we had a Christian founding if the founders were all Orthodox, Nicene Creed Christians. Now, we know that most were not deists. By my count, you have maybe two deists among America’s founders. There are a few others that are clearly not Orthodox Christians—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—but not necessarily deists. You can be heterodox without being a deist. So I’d like to think I demolished the claim that most or many of them were deists. And yet you have to admit, you can’t really prove that most of them were Orthodox Christians, because we simply lack the records.
Well, I consider a couple other possibilities, but I end up with the possibility that I think leaves me in very good company because scholars have written book after book attempting to talk about the intellectual influence on America’s founders. Were they influenced by Lockean liberalism, the Scottish school of moral sense, or the common law tradition? And my argument is, look, let’s put Christianity on the table. Were they influenced by Christian ideas or by ideas developed within the Christian tradition of political reflection? And I think you can make an excellent argument that they were. And not only was this one tradition, but it was really a predominant tradition in the late eighteenth century.
So I argue that, in that sense that the founders were profoundly influenced by Christian ideas, America had a “Christian founding.”
David Schrock: That’s helpful. So, I know one author who has thought through these things is Gregg Frazer. And I know that he’s made the point that the founders were neither theists nor complete deist rationalists. This theistic rationalist is his idea. Could you help us understand that and where you sit with regards to that idea that the founders were theistic rationalists?
Mark David Hall: Yeah, so what he’s doing is he’s picking up on something I just alluded to. Most people understand deism to be an idea that there’s a creator God who creates a world and then steps away from it. God doesn’t involve himself in the affairs of men and nations, so he doesn’t do miracles. Well, if that’s what we mean by deism, I think it’s probably the case that only Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine are deists. And I think Gregg Frazer would agree with me on that.
But Frazer says, look, you have these other people out there like a John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that are clearly not Orthodox Christians, and yet they do seem to believe that God intervenes in human affairs. So if they aren’t deist and they aren’t Orthodox Christians, what are they? Well, I’ll invent a new term and call them “theistic rationalists.” And I think his term works all right with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Where he and I part ways, is he believes that some founders like James Madison, James Wilson, and George Washington aren’t Orthodox Christians either—that they’re theistic rationalists. And I just don’t think the evidence is there to prove that.
In fact, I think in the case of Wilson there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Now, James Madison’s very illustrative here. James Madison stayed at Princeton—the College of New Jersey at the time—an extra year, presumably studying for the deity. He seems to have been a very pious man. After he left Princeton, he was just so private about his religious beliefs, that I think it’s a fool’s errand to call him an orthodox Christian, a theistic rationalist, or a deist. So I just say we don’t know. But in the absence of knowing, we shouldn’t insist that he’s one thing or the other.
So, Gregg Frazer and I are on the same page with respect to a lot of the founders. He’s what’s called a Straussian, so he’s really interested in the elites. He’s not interested in the vast majority of civic leaders in the American founding who are in the first federal congress, the constitutional convention, the state houses. So he focuses like a laser on this handful of founders, and he makes his argument. But I think he might even agree with me that if you turn your eye from these elite eight founders and look at the broader generation of founders, the evidence of deism and theistic rationalism quickly dissipates.
Fifty to seventy-five percent of America’s founders are Calvinist. Ninety-eight percent are Protestants. They tend to be church members, unless it’s hard to join a church as it was with some Calvinist churches. But just because you haven’t gone through these rigorous application processes isn’t necessarily evidence that you aren’t an orthodox Christian.
I think even he would agree that when you look at the broader constellation of founders, we have lots of evidence that the founders are orthodox, pious Christians. There’s precious little evidence that they were heterodox, theistic rationalists, or deists.
David Schrock: You mentioned one name there, James Wilson, and I believe that you’ve done some significant study on him. Can you tap into his history and how he shines a light on understanding that founding era as somebody that isn’t as mainstream as Jefferson or Adams or Madison, but helps us to understand the founding generation.
Mark David Hall: Sure. Well actually a few years ago I did a survey with Gary Gregg of the University of Louisville, and we surveyed a bunch of scholars on roughly 90 founders. And we said, “Okay, we all know Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, but other than these elite six or seven, who are the important founders that we should know something about, but we don’t?”
James Wilson came in top of that list. I think he’s probably the most underrated founder that we have. Now, he shouldn’t be elevated above George Washington, right? No one’s arguing that. But here was someone who played an incredibly important role in the American founding. He signed the Declaration of Independence, was intimately involved in debates over the Constitution, was an early Supreme Court Justice, and wrote a number of important pamphlets. James Wilson was an immigrant from Scotland. He apparently was considering the ministry as a young man. He ended up not having the patience for it, or maybe he had the ambition that led him in other directions. He came over here, eventually studied as an attorney, and rapidly, because I think of his classical education, became one of the most prominent attorneys in the United States of America.
One of the reasons I was drawn to him is he gives really the first systematic series of law lectures on American law. And when you read these, you would be excused for thinking you’re sometimes reading St. Thomas Aquinas. He literally makes distinctions like this: There are four types of law—the eternal law, the celestial law, natural physical laws, and natural moral laws. There are two types of human law—divine and international. Human law must be based upon God’s moral law if it is to be valid. An unjust law is no law at all. And he proceeds to lay out what I think is a very orthodox approach to law. He gets his Aquinas through Richard Hooker. So when he discusses Scripture, he says things like reason and scripture never contradict each other, which I agree.
And yet, Gregg Frazer would point to this and say, “Oh, look, he’s elevating reason above scripture,” which is an argument I still don’t get to this day. So I think he’s maybe not as firmly committed to TULIP as I am, not a thoroughgoing Calvinist. But there’s no reason to think he’s a deist or a theistic rationalist. There’s every reason to think that he’s a solid Christian who actually makes an effort to apply his faith to the study of law and to his political activity.
Now, I want to be careful not to say he’s representative. Again, in some ways he’s very unrepresentative, right? He had an elite education, he immigrated over here. I think to get at more representative founders, we need to turn our eyes to people who were born and raised in America and came up through the farm teams, in other words, right? People like Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth. Sherman didn’t even have a college degree. He was a cobbler and yet he taught himself math. He taught himself law. Roger Sherman’s pastor was Jonathan Edwards Jr. He wrote sermons. He debated John Witherspoon and others. He was just a thoroughly orthodox Christian who I think is very representative actually of the 50 to 75 percent of Americans who are reasonably labeled as Calvinist in that area.
I want to highlight that quickly if I may. Think of the elite founders we know—Washington—I’m skipping over Adams—but Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, John Jay. They’re all Anglicans, members of the Church of England in an era where Anglicans are about 15 percent of the American population. Of the elite founders, the only one who is in the Calvinist tradition is John Adams—and I admit that he’s a bad Calvinist. But if we turn our eyes beyond a handful of Calvinists in Boston to the rest of these Scotch Irish and these congregationalists and others, I think you have every reason to believe that they’re profoundly influenced by the reformed political tradition, and this has a great impact when it comes to, for instance, a war for American independence.
Stephen Wellum: I’m wondering, Mark—we can look at the founders and ask are they deists, are they theistic rationalists, or what are they? We can also look at what they actually implemented in terms of some of their ideas. And I’ve always thought—and correct me if I’m wrong here—but there’s a strong emphasis in the American system on the balance of powers. And the real reason for that is because they believed in human depravity and they didn’t want to concentrate power in too few hands. And that’s a little different than what you see with the French Revolution and the philosophes and the different philosophical traditions that impact Europe, and that shows something of a theology at work, right? So, it’s showing a belief system being put into practice. I don’t know if that’s a correct way of looking at this.
Mark David Hall: No, you took the words right out of my mouth. So, in the chapter, “Does America have a Godless Constitution,” I argue “no,”—that in fact we have a very godly constitution. Although the deity is only referenced one time in the dateline, right? “In the year of our Lord.” But that doesn’t matter. It’s the ideas that matter, and you point to one of the critical ones. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And even Christians struggle with the old man within. So even if we know all of our political leaders at the federal level are going to be Christians, that still won’t protect us from corruption, from tyranny. So therefore, we need the separation of powers, checks, and balances, federalism. “If men were angels, government wouldn’t be necessary,” says James Madison in Federalist 51. But they aren’t angels.
Now, we could say, wait a minute, is that a distinctively Christian idea? And we would have to say no. You could be a Chinese peasant in the ninth century and observe the world around you and come to the conclusion that people are sinful, or whatever the Chinese word is for sin, or self-interested, if you prefer.
But you think about the American political class—98 percent Protestant, 2 percent Roman Catholic, 50 to 75 percent Calvinist. Many grew up learning to read with the New England primer that has this great little rhyme: “A, Adam. In Adam’s sin, we fall all.” Or something to this effect, right? I think that’s the best explanation for why America’s founders had this relatively low view of human nature in the sense that we’re created in the Imago Dei and should be treated with respect and dignity, but humans are sinful. Therefore, we need separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. And you’re exactly right; the Enlightenment philosophes are going the exact opposite way.
We want a government by the elites. We want educated elites, and a PhD professor should be running everything. And we should have highly centralized government where we can dictate the truth from Paris to the entire country. America’s founders had nothing to do with that approach to politics.
Stephen Wellum: Well, it would also seem that there’s the strong Protestant influence with the priesthood of all believers standing over against a clergy class and a hierarchical class and it gets democratized with the people. It is a republic, yet there’s influences there that aren’t coming just with what you would see in some of the European systems and the monarchies and even some of the Roman Catholic influence.
Mark David Hall: I think that’s right. So, in Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land, I have a chapter on the Puritans and in my book on Roger Sherman, I trace this out as well. It’s almost a mathematical formula, right? The Protestant Reformers emphasize the doctrine of sola scriptura, scripture alone. They also emphasize the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Every individual is responsible for searching the scriptures for himself, and some were even coming to say “herself” as well. So what you see in Protestant countries is literacy rates explode. You have almost universal male literacy in New England, for instance, and female literacy is ahead of anywhere else it is in the world.
Now, Reformed churches organize themselves in different ways. But in New England you have the Congregationalists, right? They’re organizing themselves at the congregational level. The pastor dies, and we need a new pastor—what are we going to do? Let’s debate it as a congregation. We’re going to talk about it. Then we’ll eventually vote. That sounds a heck of a lot like democracy, right? And this spills over into civic government. So, you’re having elections every six months where almost any male who wants to can vote. There are property qualifications, but in New England and really throughout all of America, almost any male with any gumption can own property.
And you have suffrage rates upwards of 60, 75, 80 percent in New England. So, a very democratic people who get used to governing themselves. Now, you are right to distinguish that they do some direct democracy, but usually at the colonial level, they’re represented. So, then they’ll have elections for representatives and in some cases, the upper house, and in some cases the governor as well. You have the rule of law. There’s a recognition that even these Republican legislatures can’t just do whatever they want, right? They have to print the laws. They’re bound by the laws. You really could not find a better place to live politically from our perspective than seventeenth century New England.
Nowhere else in the world does better. Now, of course they aren’t twenty-first century Democrats, and we might say, “Oh, they didn’t let women vote.” And that’s problematic, right? And I’m glad for the advances we’ve made. But compared to anywhere else in the world at any time previous, you have a greater equality and justice for all than literally anywhere, even England, certainly England.
David Schrock: Well, Mark, I think that’s helpful. And certainly, you have argued this in your books and spelled this out here that America’s founding was deeply influenced by Christian ideas and Christian individuals in the church. What about the other way? How is the American church impacted by the American government?
We were talking just before we got on here about the changes with regards to the Westminster Confession. What impact did America itself impact? How did that impact the church?
Mark David Hall: Yeah, that’s a great question and I’d have to sort that out regarding America versus what’s going on over in Holland, Switzerland, and England. You see a development, and it’s a very healthy development, right? So you go back to the seventeenth century, and the historian—no relation to me—David D. Hall points out that everywhere in the seventeenth century, it’s just assumed that the Christian prince will promote true religion—that the Christian prince will punish heresy, probably have an established church, tax everyone to support the established church, maybe tolerate Protestant dissenters, and maybe won’t if they’re Quakers, and certainly won’t tolerate the Jesuits, right?
What you see throughout the late seventeenth and especially in the eighteenth century is colonial governments liberalize in a good way, right? They begin to recognize that this sort of religious persecution doesn’t work. And maybe it’s even unbiblical, ungodly. And you see this in the work of Roger Williams, William Penn, Isaac Bacchus, and Elijah Williams. These folks are making explicitly Protestant arguments in favor of religious liberty and the nation goes in this direction. It goes voluntarily. England is exercising very little oversight of the United States of America, the colonies. So you’re seeing in the colonies that they’re voting to accept Quakers and Baptists and to exempt them from taxation. And by the time you get to the late eighteenth century, you’re seeing the disestablishment of state churches. We’ve usually focus on Thomas Jefferson or James Madison’s contributions, but by and large, it’s Christians saying, look, religious establishments hurt true Christianity.
So, you are seeing these changes. But I think they’re profoundly driven by Christians making Christian arguments. So a good example of this—we were chatting about this briefly—the Westminster catechism concedes to civil authority the right to call synods. When the Presbyterians in America revised the Westminster confession—I think it’s 1788—they get rid of that altogether. They say, no, the civil rulers have no business calling church councils and certainly not of judging church councils. And I think that’s exactly right. So into the eighteenth century, you begin to see more and more of this.
Now, America lags behind in some areas. We have far too much anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Jehovah’s Witnesses were treated horribly in the mid-twentieth century. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints were treated horribly in the nineteenth century. And I don’t say this is a warm fuzzy relativist. I will try to convince any Mormon who will talk to me that he should become an orthodox Christian, but I think the reality is God would have us treat everyone with respect and dignity, and this certainly includes not chasing people across the country and killing them.
Stephen Wellum: Do you think some of that with the Mormons was tied to their acceptance of polygamy? Now, however we deal with that and however we treat them, of course, we have to wrestle with that and we have to treat people with respect and so on. Yet, there was still the emphasis on, say, the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, and its place in the country, right? Which is, again, another evidence that they’re not governing by moral standards and laws that are independent of Christianity. It’s built upon the scriptures at that point.
Mark David Hall: No, I think that’s right. So I argued this in both of the two recent books. I think Christian theology and Protestant theology specifically requires—I happen to think this is a founding consensus as well, so I’d say the first amendment also requires—that people be free to worship God according to the dictates of conscience. The government simply has no business saying take the Eucharist, don’t take the Eucharist, baptize babies, baptize adults.
There should be a great deal of freedom there. I would also say people should be free to act upon their religious convictions whenever possible. Jack Phillips shouldn’t be forced to bake a cake with a message which he disagrees with and has religious objections to as well. Native Americans should be able to use peyote in religious ceremonies.
But religious liberty can’t be absolute. And I think you can make an excellent argument that there are good, solid reasons for prohibiting polygamy. This almost always works out horribly for women, and we can document this. And it often works out horribly for children. So for reasons that have nothing to do with theology and marriage, it’s appropriate for a state to ban polygamy and other things, right?
There are other things as well. Christian scientists who want to not treat their babies with medical treatments that we know will work for pneumonia or something like that. The state can step in and say, “No, you don’t get to act on that religious conviction, but we’re going to keep you from not acting on it in the least intrusive means.” This certainly doesn’t mean chasing you across the United States of America and killing far too many of you.
Stephen Wellum: Just following up on the previous discussion on changes from Europe in terms of, say, the Westminster Catechism and bringing it over to America—there’s probably a lot of reasons and it’s hard to nail down just a couple of them. But, are they making, as it comes to America, a historical observation that the wars of religion didn’t turn out well, so we don’t want to bring that over to America? Is that that part of it? Are there actually biblical-theological arguments being made?
And you mentioned Roger Williams and Isaac Bacchus. There you have the influence of more of the Baptist direction which would work with more of a church-state distinction than you would see in terms of some of the magisterial reformers. Is that going on? There’s probably a lot of factors, but what’s changing this?
Mark David Hall: Yes, I’m an ideas guy, so I do like the idea that arguments based on scriptures can work. And you have William Penn, who’s making these arguments as well, coming out of the Quaker tradition. And Elisha Williams, a congregationalist. So, you are having a variety of people who are making them.
Roger Williams is originally published in England, and he’s almost not known in America. He’s known as the civic founder, but his arguments aren’t all that known until much later when the Baptists rediscover him. So, I’d like to think these arguments broadly—there are scriptural appeals that aren’t distinctively Quaker or Baptist—would have an impact on Congregationalists and Presbyterians and others.
I do think there’s an element of practicality here, and you see this in England too, right? England passes the Act of Toleration and passes the Quaker Act. The Quaker Act specifically says we have these Quakers, this society of friends, and they have this theological view that we view as nuts—although ironically, they’re taking Jesus literally, right? When he says, “Swear not at all, but let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay.” So, they aren’t pulling this from thin air; they’re pulling it from scripture. So, the Quakers refused to swear oaths. They are thrown in jail by the thousands in England because they won’t swear loyalty oaths or they can’t testify in court to defend their own property or this sort of thing. Literally hundreds of Quakers die. These are among the best citizens and I think Parliament eventually figures out it makes no sense to be doing this. So, let’s pass a Quaker Act to permit Quakers to affirm rather than swear oaths. That’s all they’re asking for. You can give them an oath, they’ll affirm it, they just won’t swear it, right?
So you’re seeing these changes in England, and I think in Holland as well. You’re seeing it in America. Again, I do this at some length, did America have a Christian founding? I think the number one reason that states are getting out of the business of having established churches is because Christians have been convinced this is always bad for the church.
In Virginia, it was the House of Burgesses that told the church of England how it would govern itself. That was part of the establishment, right? Does this really seem to anyone like a good idea? Two of us are in a relatively red state of Virginia—do we really want the General Assembly saying how your church will be governed? I think this is a horrible idea. Or do we want the General Assembly saying who should be the minister? Or who should be taxed to pay for this?
I think this is a development. I think America is ahead of it. Obviously, England still has an established church, although it’s a fairly toothless establishment at this point
David Schrock: Yeah, it was interesting in 2020 when our governor of Virginia here was giving directions to local churches of what they needed to do, with how to gather, and giving suggestions there.
But certainly, we feel the oddity of that and the unrighteousness of that because of our history and because of the way Scripture leads us to understand the relationship between church and state. So Mark, I’d love to ask the question: When the constitution said that the Congress shall not establish a national church, there were still many states that had state churches. Was there still a sense that the states could establish churches there? Was this kind of passing out? Was it an already-not yet? How do we understand that?
Mark David Hall: Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you. So, beyond question, the First Amendment restricts only the national government, originally. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Clearly a restriction on the national government. What you have at the state level is, during the War for American Independence, almost right away, states started disestablishing the Church of England. You know, think about it, right? The king is the head of the Church of England. So, these southern states began to move away from it, or began to exempt dissenters from taxes and this sort of thing. I forget the exact count—let’s say maybe six or seven states still had established churches around the time of the Constitution. But everyone’s moving away from it.
So, by the time you get to 1832, Massachusetts is the last state with an established church. Now when I say that, I think most people think—and this is reasonable—about some sort of scheme by which people are taxed to support a favored church. Oftentimes it actually became a multiple establishment, where people would be taxed to support the church they choose to attend.
So Germany still has this model. Catholics are taxed to support the Catholic Church, Lutherans are taxed to support the Lutheran Church, and even Jews can be taxed to support the local synagogues. So, this is not exactly an oppressive establishment, but you still have many states with the religious test for office. You still have states punishing blasphemy into the nineteenth century.
The First Amendment has no restriction on the states. The states remain in the business of protecting and promoting religion in some way, shape, or form, and some do more than others. New England tended to be a little more heavy-handed than the mid-Atlantic states, but they’re still doing this and they’re constitutionally permitted to do this.
It is not until 1947 that Congress through the 14th amendment that the U.S. Supreme Court applies the Establishment Clause to the states. Now to my way of reading the Establishment Clause, this really is no big deal because all the Establishment Clause says—it might do a little more than this, but it doesn’t do much more—is that Congress will not create a national church.
So now that it applies to the states, I think Virginia cannot create a state church or Kentucky cannot create a state church. But there’s still lots of room to do lots of other things such as adopting a robust voucher system that permits parents to send their children to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and secular schools.
It certainly doesn’t require a 1925 World War I era cross on public land to be torn down. It certainly doesn’t prohibit states from accommodating Muslim women who feel they need to wear the hijab in their place of employment. So, there’s still a lot of things the state can do to protect religion in a variety of circumstances. It just can’t have an established church.
What the U.S. Supreme Court did in the 1947 case, though, is engage in some really bad history. Literally both the dissent and the majority opinion argued this: We must interpret the First Amendment in light of the Founders’ views. The Founders wanted the strict separation of church and state. Therefore, the First Amendment—the Establishment Clause—specifically requires the strict separation of church and state.
So this really bad history led to some horrendous jurisprudence, culminating with the Lemon Test in the early 1970s, and the crazy raft of decisions in the seventies and eighties that no one could predict. It was just horrible jurisprudence. Fortunately, the court has moved back to an original understanding of the establishment clause. Which again, it might mean a little bit more than this, but in effect, it means a state cannot create an official state church. But lots of other things are permissible under this understanding.
Stephen Wellum: If we go back to the original states. Some of them have the establishment religion, but Congress of course can’t do that. I would say—help me if I’m wrong here—the Decalogue, what we often identify as the moral law, was functioning in the country. So do you know if certain states would say it’s legitimate to enforce the second table of that law [commandments 5–10 in the ten commandments] that applies to humans and not the first table [commandments 1–4]? Or would they say the entire Decalogue applies, which would include then issues of blasphemy, issues of Sabbath and so on? How was that viewed in the states? Did it vary from state to state?
Mark David Hall: Yeah, I would say almost no one in any state legislature would question whether or not the state authorities could legislate based on the second table of the law. That’s just uniform, and no one would find it to be problematic to make an argument such as this: the Bible clearly condemns murder, so therefore murder should be illegal and the penalty should be this.
Many states continued well into the twentieth century to enforce the fourth commandment: Keep the Sabbath holy. There is Sabbath legislation almost everywhere. In the middle of the nineteenth century, some state supreme courts start striking it down based on their state constitutions. Some states voted it out. What actually happens in most states is they created exception after exception after exception such that the law is almost meaningless.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never struck down the Sabbath laws as a violation of the Establishment Clause. There was a series of cases right around 1960 that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. A number of them were brought by Jewish merchants who claimed that they were disadvantaged because they had to shut their businesses on Saturday, but then they were forced by the state to shut them on Sunday. So they had both religious liberty and Establishment Clause claims. The U.S. Supreme Court considered them and said, “Oh, too bad. They’re just fine.” And what they actually made were non-religious arguments to support them—the state has an interest in a day of rest and it can legislate in this if it wants. It doesn’t have to, but it can.
So, these laws have not been struck down to the present day. And as you point out, laws against blasphemy were implemented. Usually, I think it was not statutory law, but I think it was based on a common law understanding that blasphemy is illegal. But some people were successfully prosecuted for blasphemy. State courts moved pretty rapidly away from those sorts of prosecutions into the nineteenth century for a variety of reasons. That’s really outside of my area of expertise. but I want to affirm that states are still doing this.
If I can just jump way ahead, I think it’s not until the mid-twentieth century that you really have many people—and they’re mostly college professors—starting to argue that it’s somehow illegitimate to legislate morality or to bring one’s religious views into the public square. And really, it’s not until you get to someone like John Rawls, the brilliant Harvard political philosopher, who makes these arguments about public reason that people start saying that’s illegitimate. And it just takes a moment of reflection, right?
Think about The Civil Rights Movement led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Thomas Young, and others, right? Here are ministers of the gospel bringing their faith into the public square to fight for justice. You have white ministers marching alongside them. You have plenty of citizens motivated by their faith to fight Jim Crow legislation. Absolutely no one would have thought to question that. And even John Rawls has some problems explaining why that was wrong. And in fact, he kind of cheats. He said we could justify this activity on secular reasons, so it’s okay that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. did what he did. But he’s just cheating, right?
When it comes to abortion, he says there are no good reasons to oppose abortion, only religious ones. So therefore it’s illegitimate for Christians to bring their faith into the public square to advocate against abortion. So let me suggest these ideas are very, very modern. They are, I think, not widespread even in popular culture, and there’s no reasons that Christians should buy into them.
We have an obligation, I would say, to be salt and light in the city, to bring our faith into the public square, advocating for justice, liberty and equality for all. And by all, I mean literally all, right? Not just Christians. We should fight for the religious liberty of Muslims and Sikhs and others even as we try to convert them with the gospel.
David Schrock: Mark, there’s so many questions I want to ask in both directions, back toward the Puritans and then towards our own day. And certainly, we want to still get to some contemporary questions regarding Christian nationalism and what’s at the forefront today which is probably responding to a number of things that have changed, especially from the 1960s into the present.
And there has been this radical separation between church and state where Christians cannot bring their faith into the public square. But to ask one question: Over the course of the nineteenth century, did America become more of a Christian nation with the Second Great Awakening? Was there a greater sense that Americans would identify their nation as a Christian nation, even perhaps leading into the two World Wars and that they’re standing up as a righteous nation against unrighteous nations?
How do you think about that? And I ask that in part because of the 1892 Supreme Court decision between Holy Trinity v. United States and because of what Joseph Story says about a Christian nation. Is that something that increased over that century?
Mark David Hall: I want to be careful here. I’m really good in the late eighteenth century. I’m not as good with everything else, but I’m not bad.
And I think it’s just entirely common to talk about America as a Christian nation in the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century, well into the twentieth century. And I think folks like Franklin Roosevelt did this quite a bit in his war addresses and I don’t think it is meant in an exclusive way as if somehow the Jews that are here aren’t fully part of the nation.
It just is a recognition, right? Even into the mid twentieth century, I think America is still probably 94 percent people who would identify as Protestants or Catholics with a good chunk of Jewish citizens and a handful of others. So, it was commonplace. It’s only over the last 50 years that you maybe get a move away from that, and there’s a variety of reasons for that. The Immigration Act of, I think, 1965 that opened the doors for lots of non-Christians to immigrate from Asia and elsewhere. Secularization, which has occurred for whatever reason—it’s not just immigration to be sure. Something like 37 percent of Americans today identify as “Nones.” So, there’s been changes to be sure.
Let me just take a step back, if I may, to the American founding and make a distinction that I find important. I argue—and I have an entire book arguing that America had a Christian founding—but I don’t actually argue that America was founded as a Christian nation. Because to my ears, and I think to many modern ears, that just sounds exclusive, as if it’s a nation founded by and for Christians, where non-Christians will maybe be tolerated, but not much more than that. I just don’t think that was the case, right? The Constitution contains Article 6 that banned religious tests for federal office. In the ratification debates, anti-federalists said, “Oh, this means a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist could hold office.” And the federalists had to say, “Yes, yes it does.”
That’s a possibility. Now they thought it would never happen, but they recognized it’s a possibility. My favorite letter from the era is George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island where he makes it crystal clear that Jews have just the exact same right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience as Catholics or Protestants or anyone else.
So I don’t like the language that America was founded as a Christian nation. I argue we had a Christian founding and that was good news for everyone. But to answer your question specifically, even someone like a Thomas Jefferson refers to America as a Christian nation. I think it’s just more descriptive, right? It’s a Christian nation as opposed to the Barbary Pirates, which are Islamic nations.
David Schrock: Yeah, I asked the question of Christian nation because that seems to be the language of today. So, I think it’s helpful to make that distinction of not overreading our current questions and our current situations back into the founding at that point.
But to get to some of the contemporary things—and I know that you’ve even done some writing on this and are working on more research on Christian nationalism and some of the contemporary issues today. What would you say to someone who is trying to go back and to say what we want is for Christians to be able to have the freedom to worship and we want to be able to see the morality that Christianity provides, the flourishing that comes for families, all the things that have been taken away. And they’re wanting to establish some kind of Christian nationalism in the present. How would your historical studies help to caution some things, or identify some good things that are associated with that language today?
Mark David Hall: Sure. So, I think what’s real important to recognize—and you can do a Google search and find this for yourself—almost no one in America is using the phrase Christian nationalism before 2006.
No one is saying they are a Christian nationalist. No one is saying we should be Christian nationalists. In 2006, it began to be used by critics who said, “Oh my goodness, there are these theocrats out there that want to take over America for Christ and oppress racial minorities and women. And maybe only Protestants will be put on the very top. This is horrible. It’s scary. We should be very, very afraid.” It’s an extension of the literature criticizing the religious right of the 90s and early twenty-first century. So beginning in 2006, almost every other year a book would come out. Most of them were polemical authors saying we should be very, very, very afraid.
Again, no one is saying they are Christian nationalist. This is a good thing. And sometimes I think Christians are just dumb, literally dumb. So 2022, Marjorie Taylor Greene comes out and says, “I’m a Christian nationalist. It’s a wonderful thing to be a Christian nationalist.” No, it’s just dumb. And then, of course, Stephen Wolfe publishes a book advocating for it as do Torba and Isker.
I gather you’re talking with Doug Wilson, and I appreciate his approach. He basically says, “Well, it’s not a term I would choose, but I’m not going to run from it. If I’m allowed to define it, I’m going to define it as A, B, and C.” And he defines it in a perfect responsible way. I would just say to Wilson, “That’s imprudent. You’re taking a label that has almost solely been used to criticize Christians. and you’re accepting it.”
So, I would say, look, conservative Christians should simply reject that label and say: We are Christians. We are followers of Christ. We have an obligation to be salt and light in the city and we are going to be politically active and we are going to make the arguments that we want to make. And if we want to make biblical arguments, we’ll make them. And certainly, there’s nothing constitutionally to prohibit us from doing so. But perhaps if we’re trying to reach people besides Christians. We might make moral arguments, arguments based on social science, arguments that we think will be effective. But that would be our choice, not something imposed by the First Amendment or some sort of naked public score invented by John Rawls.
David Schrock: Yeah, I think that’s a helpful word there, Mark. I know that you’re working on a book on this very subject. You want to tell us a little bit more about that?
Mark David Hall: Sure. So, I’ve probably published eight or nine short essays and book reviews. If you just Google “Mark David Hall, Christian nationalism,” they should come up. I am working on a book length treatment of it. And what I do is I make everyone mad. I critique the critics. I think the critics are painting a picture of something that’s overblown. Whitehead and Perry claim that 51.9 percent of Americans are fully or partially in favor of this sort of Christian nationalism that they associate with racism and sexism and militarism and just every bad “-ism” you can think of. Well, if they were right, I would be scared to death. But I think their measures are so flawed and it’s a ridiculous argument.
I then turn around and I critique Torba and Isker and Stephen Wolfe and Doug Wilson. I think they’re being very imprudent. I think they’re just dead wrong—more so Wolfe and Torba and Isker than Wilson, although I think Wilson’s being imprudent. And then I actually lay out what I think Christian nationalism is.
I think it does exist. I think we see it in far too many Southern Baptist churches on the 4th of July or the Sunday that falls right around the 4th of July. And I’m critical of this, but I suggest it’s not an existential threat to American democracy or the Christian church like these critics say it is.
David Schrock: I was talking to a pastor just the other day and one of his concerns was that by using this language, it can really be used against Christians in great ways if the left continues to take the white house and even in 2024 takes the white house. I think there’s great hope that that will be overturned and that the left won’t have the white house any longer. But if they do, there’s just an invitation for concern there.
It seems on the other hand that one of the things that has happened is that there is a desire to press forward the claims of Christ into culture. And maybe there has been too much acceptance, maybe not following John Rawls, but just this allowance for the separation of church and state without Christianity influencing the culture.
And it’s been interesting to me thinking about the Puritans. The Puritans have regained a lot of credibility and publishing from Banner of Truth and all the rest over the last 50 years and beyond. And certainly, their salvation and their Christian life and Christian living, and all those things have been certainly well received. One question I had that relates to going back and pulling from that history has to do with their postmillennialism and even some of their political theology. It seems it has not come across as much. Is there anything there that we should be thinking about?
Mark David Hall: I think you’ve put your finger on something.
All the people I’ve mentioned that are currently advocating for Christian nationalism, with the exception of Marjorie Taylor Greene, are postmillennialist. As was Rousas Rushdoony. And I think that’s no accident. John Cotton, a great Puritan leader, was asked a question. He was asked should Christians attempt to Christianize society? And I love his answer. He said, if you are a Christian in Turkey, no. You keep your head down, right? You keep your head down, you be as obedient to God as you can, and you worship him in spirit and truth. If you’re a Christian in England, you should probably make some effort to do that, but we have so many entrenched norms and laws and policies and institutions. Good luck with that. But in the United States of America, in Massachusetts Bay, where you have a group of immigrants who are largely on the same page theologically, and you have this great freedom to craft new laws and institutions, then absolutely. We should do this. And I have to say, I find that vision very attractive.
But here’s my caution. I interact with a lot of younger men in their 20s who are just sick of political liberalism. And they’re saying, “Why in the world are we having drag queen story hours in public libraries, and why don’t we bring back blasphemy laws,” and that sort of thing. And these are the people that I think are attracted to reading Stephen Wolfe or Torba and Isker and this sort of thing. And I think here’s where we need to be very prudent. Let’s say that federalism allowed these young men to do this in some places. Things might work out pretty well for Christians in Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, right? I can tell you for citizens of Oregon, Washington, California, anywhere in New England, New York, this will work out really, really poorly for conservatives and Christians. These are places that have probably a vast majority of the American population.
So I would say we should be careful before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, right? Christians have made a lot of gains. Religious liberty is very well protected today—religious liberty of Christians. We saw this in 303 Creative and with Jack Phillips who’s still being persecuted. But when he went court, he won. And I think freedom of speech benefits conservative Christians. It lets us go into the public square and share the gospel and make our arguments.
And if we say liberalism is done and the state’s going to impose certain values on people, it might work out well for Christians in some deeply red states, but overall, I think it would be a very bad thing for Christians. So, I think there’s prudential reasons to say what might have been kind of cool in Puritan New England is not the case in our pluralistic environment in which 37 percent of the people don’t even identify as Christians and many identify as something other than Christian. And then when you take those who identify as Christians who bother to go to church or pray or read their Bible, we’re a minority, and we need to be cognizant of that, I think.
David Schrock: Steve, do you think that what Mark just put his finger on—the difference between a postmillennial eschatology and even the difference between a Presbyterian understanding and let’s say a Baptist understanding—is that one of the great divides that is between those who are for Christian nationalism and against right now?
Stephen Wellum: Well, I think it’s greatly influencing it. At Christ Over All, we don’t identify as Presbyterian or postmillennial, and we’re wanting to influence the larger culture. We want to see that the founding of the nation has been influenced by Christianity. You can’t even understand the country without the impact of Christian doctrine and theology and so on.
Yet in terms of the solutions for today and especially the change that we’ve seen now in a pluralistic culture, how one views the relation of the covenants, how one understands church and state, how one understands what this nation is as a nation, as a Christian nation—the postmillennial vision is of course evangelizing and taking the gospel and transforming nations, not just people out of the nations that then enter into the church—is going to affect how they view the mission of the church here, the role that they have in this country, and then also how they will then interpret the past because there was a lot of Puritan and postmillennial influences in Covenant theology and Calvinistic influences from the past. But we do have to reconcile and come to grips with the fact that our present situation is not like it was in the founding of this nation. So we have to be practical and also ask how do we bring our Christian convictions to bear on the present world we live? And of course, that’s going to be affected now by a larger theology that we have.
David Schrock: Well, I think we could keep talking about these things and it sounds like there’s many more conversations that we need to have to think through this. For those who are listening, I would simply say that Mark’s book that he’s mentioned multiple times, Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land, really fills in the gaps of some of our conversation today.
And Mark, we really appreciate your time with us today talking about these things.
Mark David Hall: Thank you so much for having me.
David Schrock: Absolutely. And Steve, as always, it’s great to be with you, brother.
Stephen Wellum: Yeah, it’s a very important conversation trying to gain historical perspective. Mark, thank you for helping us think through the founding of the nation. There are so many different reports out there, aren’t there? So, we’re just getting some sense of what has happened in the past so we can build for the present
Mark David Hall: Well, thank you all so much. It’s been a real pleasure.
David Schrock: Amen. And friends, thank you for listening to Christ Over All today. If this conversation has been of interest, stick with us all month because we will be talking more about Christian nationalism on both sides and then giving some constructive feedback at the end of the month.