Did America Have a Christian Founding? A Conversation with Professor Mark David Hall

Albert Mohler:              This is Thinking In Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Mark David Hall serves as the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Virginia and since then, he’s devoted his career to the study of American political theory and, most importantly, the intersection of religion and politics. He’s the author or editor of at least 12 books, and in addition to his teaching at George Fox University, Professor Hall serves as an associated faculty member at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. Furthermore, he is a senior fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion. His newest book is entitled, Did America Have a Christian Founding? And to that question, we will turn today.

Dr. Hall, thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Professor Hall, you ask a question in the title, and that’s a fairly, well, not uncommon, but somewhat courageous thing to do in a book title, because then you have to answer the question you ask. The question, did America have a Christian founding? You answer yes.

Mark David Hall:           That’s correct. Yeah, so it is a controversial question and scholars have weighed in on all sides of the debate. But I think the question, the best answer to the question is yes. Critical important, of course, is defining the terms. What do we mean by a Christian founding, emphasis on Christian, and when was America founded? I lay out in the introduction a couple of different things we might mean, especially by the Christian founding. More Americans in the late 18th century identifying themselves as Christians. The answer is absolutely yes. 98% Protestant, 2% Roman Catholic, about 2,000 Jews. Overwhelmingly, Christians. But I think the far more interesting way to approach the question is: were these men, primarily men, but some women as well, were they influenced by Christian ideas when they broke from Great Britain and created our constitutional order?

Albert Mohler:              So, I appreciate the way you ask the question and the way you answer it. And I want to go through the five options you list about what it might mean for America to have a Christian founding. But I also want to say that before you even begin to answer the question, my frustration is that so many of those who have weighed in on this do so without any real evidence whatsoever. They read history backwards, read themselves into history. So using Alister McIntyre’s term of a social imaginary, I just want to make the point when I enter any of these conversations that the social imaginary that would have been held by a relatively small population of Americans, and especially by those who were in the leadership and intellectual political class, that social imaginary was not imaginable without Christianity being the major influence. So, there’s a sense in which I think any honest person’s going to have to say that America did have a Christian founding, the only real intellectually honest argument is the extent to which that would be true.

Mark David Hall:           No, I think that’s right. Christianity was in the air these individuals breathed, of course it differed a little bit from region, but in New England, these folks knew the Bible inside and out. Many, many of them were pious Christians, there is very little evidence of deism. You get to the south, the Anglican planter class, maybe looking less recognizable like pious Christians, but certainly they would have identified themselves as Christians. They would have been leaders in their churches, and they were certainly informed by Christian ideas. Let me just quickly give you a great example. There are some scholars that say things like there is no evidence that George Washington read his Bible and he certainly didn’t use his Bible. Well, this is nonsense. George Washington paraphrases Micah 4:4 more than 40 times alone, but scholars miss it because he doesn’t put a little parenthetical citation, Micah 4:4, and so they just read right over it and they don’t recognize it.

Albert Mohler:              Every man under his fig tree.

Mark David Hall:           That’s it, exactly.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, yeah. Well, but I think again, before we even turn to the primary sources and the evidence, we just have the realities and the constraints of the time. And if you look at all the colonies, there wasn’t one of them that was secular. You can’t even define Rhode Island as secular. It had a unique notion of Christian liberty, but it wasn’t secular. You do have Anglican colonies all the way up to Virginia. You’ve got congregational colonies, you’ve got a Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. You well document the fact that it even required basically a defense of Christianity for public office. What you don’t have is the one thing that so many people in the secular left have pushed for over a century, and that is the idea that there was some Enlightenment based community of real life that was a part of that social imaginary of most Americans.

Mark David Hall:           You know, that’s exactly right. And I think the reason a lot of scholars err is because they focus so heavily on just a few elite founders. And they’re great men, absolutely, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. But they don’t think about how unrepresentative these men are. Hamilton’s not born in America. Ben Franklin spends over half of the last 35 years of his life in Europe. Jefferson and Adams spend significant time in Europe. So these are folks that are more influenced by the Enlightenment than almost any American. But they’re thoroughly unrepresentative of most Americans, even most civic leaders in the late 18th century.

Albert Mohler:              A part of this is recognizing that when we say the Enlightenment, we’re at least talking about two things, a continental Enlightenment and an English-speaking Enlightenment. More Scottish than English actually. But when you’re talking about the English-speaking Enlightenment tradition, first of all, it is far more harmonious with Orthodox Christianity in its conversation than would have been true on the continent. So even the deism, and when people mention deism I always say it’s like atheism, it’s a specific form of deism. There is no generic universal deism. So, the deism, insofar as it existed in deistic circles in the 18th century, it was a deism that really predicated itself upon the Christian God.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. In the first substantive chapter of my book, I ask, “Were any of America’s founders deists?” And I come to the conclusion that if we use a common definition of deism, a watchmaker God who creates a universe and walks away from it, that really, it’s only clear that one civic leader, Ethan Allen, is a deist.

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Mark David Hall:           Someone like Thomas Paine is probably called a deist, even though he upon occasion talks about providence. Paine, of course, is from England, he spends most of his life in Europe. He’s not a regular American. And when we turn to other people like George Washington, who is always labeled a deist, I mean, he speaks of God intervening in human affairs like over 270 times, all the time.

Albert Mohler:              Well, and counted on it and asked the nation to pray for it.

Mark David Hall:           Absolutely.

Albert Mohler:              So, you can’t be a card carrying deist and believe in specific providence.

Mark David Hall:           Not at all.

Albert Mohler:              In special providence. You can’t believe that God intervenes and be a deist. Which does mean that it’s not just a problem of the American founding, it’s a problem going all the way into the 20th century, trying to talk about the worldview of major historical figures. In Abraham Lincoln, not an Orthodox Christian by any kind of testimony that we can find, but someone whose statements are only coherent and understandable within a largely Christian worldview frame. And, by the time he delivers his second inaugural address, it’s very clear he is looking at God’s active judgment in history. That’s not a deist.

Mark David Hall:           Not at all. No, that’s probably one the most theological sophisticated of all presidential addresses. It’s wonderful. Everyone should read and re-read it.

Albert Mohler:              And it’s not a deist.

Mark David Hall:           Not at all.

Albert Mohler:              You either don’t understand deism or you won’t read the text. Or you have to make the ludicrous argument that the greatest address given by Abraham Lincoln he didn’t mean when he gave it. But again, most people get away with this because they make generalizations and they have for a very long time. And what you have done is to come back and cut through the generalizations to some very specific facts on the ground. Statements, primary sources. So, let me ask you, as you do in the introduction to your book, to lay out what are those five alternatives about how we could answer the question, did America have a Christian founding?

Mark David Hall:           Sure. Well, I already indicated one, did Americans of European descent identify themselves as Christians? And the answer there is indisputably they did. A slightly more interesting way to ask that question is, were they Orthodox Christians? Christians that would have affirmed the Apostles Creed. And there I would say it’s difficult to answer that question with some Americans because we don’t have good records, diaries, letters, and that sort of thing. Of those that we do have, it seems that most of them were Orthodox Christians, and certainly, virtually none of them were deism as the term is usually defined. A third way is: did they act as Christians? And here, I think there’s a lot of conceptual confusion. People say things like Alexander Hamilton had an extramarital affair, Christians don’t have extramarital affairs, therefore Alexander Hamilton was a deist. Well that doesn’t follow at all, and it doesn’t follow that he wasn’t a Christian. It follows that he was a fallen person, a Christian perhaps struggling with sin. And so, I think it’s important to sort through these sorts of things. In some cases, it’s unrealistic expectations, right? The American founders do not immediately abolish slavery, so therefore we do not have a Christian founding. Well, again, that’s just the historical error of presentivism. As I’ve suggested, I think the very best way to think about the question is in terms of influence. Were America’s founders influenced by Christian ideas? And here, we can look at the possibility that someone who maybe wasn’t particularly pious was still deeply influenced by Christian ideas. And as well, we should be open to the argument that someone who maybe was a pious Christian was influenced by secular ideas. And I think we have to be open to that possibility. But when we sort through evidence, I think there’s very little evidence of that in the American founding.

Albert Mohler:              I was really introduced to this debate when I was in high school. Intellectually active, politically active, theologically active, very much committed to apologetics, trying to figure out what it meant to understand a Christian biblical view of life, how it applied to the arts, culture, politics, and all the rest. And these debates came up, and when I say it came up, I mean it came up in church and in theological conversation. And I didn’t know something then that I came to know later that has really helped me to think through some of this. First of all, I am an evangelical theologian committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe that salvation comes and comes only to those who consciously profess Jesus Christ as Lord and repent of their sins. And so, I will speak as I think evangelical Christians rightly, instinctively speak about a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. I will speak of the first person. But I think it’s really important for us to understand that for many people in other contexts, the first person was not even a natural way of speech when it came to matters of religious belief. And examples of that are that, for instance, when you are talking about many of the founders, the vast majority of them, insofar as they were part of Christian churches, and most of them were, membership in those churches came by baptism, and to varying degrees, there really was no public profession that was required of them other than continuing to associate with the church in which they had been baptized. Of course, those churches would come back and say, “Look, every single Lord’s Supper is an opportunity of that confession.” I understand, but by that virtue, the secularists are left by saying there is absolutely no evidence that X was a Christian, when there’s plenty of evidence that by the standards of the day, by the theological understandings of that individual, that individual would be offended. Well, I think that’s a ridiculous question.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, no, I think that’s absolutely correct. You’re exactly right, especially Anglicans baptized into the faith, they grew up in the faith. Of course, some Anglicans are more pious than others. Some are deeply pious, John Jay, Patrick Henry, you know, really very evangelical. Others, as you know, say in New England, a congregationalist certainly would be baptized as a baby, be considered a part of the covenant community, but before he could join the church, or she could join the church, they did, he or she did have to give a profession of faith. And this was a very nerve-wracking thing. So many might be lifelong church members, active in their church, but never actually make this profession faith and formally join the church. And so therefore, church membership might look low by some counts. But to say, “Well, America wasn’t Christian because she had low church membership in New England,” just completely shows that you don’t understand what was going on in New England.

Albert Mohler:              With a fascinating little theological footnote there we dare not take the time trace, but it has to do with the fact that there were some theological questions that still continue in certain ways, but with nowhere near the same intensity as in earlier American eras. When people feared that once they made that profession, they could commit an unpardonable sin. There was a great sense of gravity about making that profession. And the idea was, “We’ll keep pushing it off, and pushing it off, and pushing it off. So, yes, the reality is that the modern historian often, and I say modern because this goes back to the late 19th century, often looks at individuals and asked questions that in historical placement those individuals wouldn’t have understood.

Mark David Hall:           I think that’s exactly right, yes.

Albert Mohler:              You mentioned deism, and you said Ethan Allen was a deist, I understand that.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Albert Mohler:              Pretty evident in the primary sources.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah.

Albert Mohler:              Thomas Paine was probably not a deist, by my definition he was probably more just an unbeliever. But when you’re talking about the other founders, I go back to that Alister McIntyre category, the social imaginary. What were the ideas available to them? What were they reading? What did they say? And the reality is that you’re not talking about a secular America, not even close.

Mark David Hall:           Not even close. So, someone like Thomas Jefferson, for instance, who clearly is not an Orthodox Christian, at least later in life. And exactly when he might have switched or what not is subject to debate. But certainly, in the 19th century he pens many letters where he reveals he is not at all an evangelical Christian. But he actually called himself a Christian, and he believed in the virtue of moral teachings of Jesus Christ, and he prayed for the day where every American would be a Unitarian, which is still a Christian of a particular stripe. And, you know, we know that similar things with respect with Franklin and Adams, and one of the problems, I think, is sometimes you get, scholars will extrapolate from these folks, not recognizing how very unrepresentative they are of their fellow founders.

Albert Mohler:              Now, the theologian here cannot let pass that statement that Unitarians are a form of Christian. I know what you meant by it.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Albert Mohler:              I do not believe that Unitarians can be Christians, denying the Trinity. I want to be very clear about that. But again, the Unitarianism of which we speak was derivative of Orthodox Christianity. It wasn’t some kind of a pan global Unitarianism. It was a very specific intellectual movement that I think had very lamentable deadly effects upon especially New England theology. Unitarians only became Unitarians by denying the Trinity that was central to Christian Orthodoxy. Without Christian Orthodoxy, they wouldn’t have had anything to deny.

Mark David Hall:           Fair enough. No, I think that’s absolutely right. So, they would have considered themselves to be Christians, they would believe in a Creator God and moral standards.

Albert Mohler:              Right.

Mark David Hall:           But yeah, I think you’re right, in the final analysis they would not be what we would consider to be Christians or Orthodox Christian, if you want to put it that way.

Albert Mohler:              You go through chapter by chapter some of the myths, and so you deal directly with the myth of the founders’ deism. I think some of the most interesting work you did, and I’ve never seen anyone make this connection before, and it set my mind at work very eagerly. You point out that some of the words in the Declaration, and how I hadn’t noticed this, I don’t know.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Albert Mohler:              It’s just a reminder of the fact you can stare at things for a long time and not see patterns. As much as my own theological rootage would be found in the Westminster Confession, I really had not noticed that the same phrases that people identify as secular, or secular-ish, in the Declaration and in America’s founding documents are actually some of the language used in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. My friend and frequent collaborator, Daniel Dreisbach, actually pointed that out to me. But you’re exactly right, the Westminster Confession used words, you know, the first cause, things like that, that you would say, “Wow! That’s a deistic phrase!” But if you look broadly in the primary sources, you would find indisputably our Orthodox Christians using phrases like nature’s God and certainly Creator, certainly providence. These are not explicitly deistic terms in any way, shape or form. And yet scholar after scholar will point to this phraseology. And at a minimum, they’ll say they’re not distinctively Christian, they’re not uniquely Christian, which is of course true, but then ignores the context of the time. In the context of the time, nobody thought that this referred to anyone other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A God that certainly intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.

Albert Mohler:              One of the arguments made by others is the fact that when you are looking at the founding era, you’re looking at an intentional effort to create a secular republic, or at least a republic without an established church, and with no particular theological basis or foundation. But one of the questions I’ve always wanted to ask those historians is, where do you think these people came from? Because they were the very same people in the main, who had stated exactly the opposite of what you argue, within a decade of when the founding documents were created. And especially the Declaration of Independence. But also, I mean frankly, the Constitution. So, you’ve got statements in Pennsylvania and other states that are explicitly affirmative of the fact that this is a society based upon explicitly Christian doctrine. And yet, you have people who don’t read that primary source material, who just come back and say, “Well they were clearly secular.” But they clearly weren’t. Not unless their bodies and minds were taken over by aliens just about the time they stepped into Independence Hall.

Mark David Hall:           No, that’s exactly right. One of the studies I cite here is a study by a fellow named Donald Lutz who went through a great deal of political literature from the era and looked at who was cited. And what you find is these folks are citing the Bible more than any other thing. About 34% of the citations of political documents, and by the era I mean basically 1760 to 1810, about 34% to the Bible alone, about 22% to all Enlightenment thinkers combined. So, Locke, Montesquieu, Beccaria, Smith, I mean these are people of the word. And Lutz profoundly under-counts references to the Bible because he tells us he’s excluding political sermons if they don’t also reference secular thinkers. And he’s not counting these numerous elusions to scripture that don’t have the little parenthetical citation. So yeah, the Bible is everywhere. Reliance upon God is everywhere. Theological arguments are everywhere. And about the only way you can get confused is if you just read the Constitution and say, “Gosh, God really isn’t mentioned all that much in the year of our Lord, 1787. So, we have a godless Constitution.” That’s just silly history, honestly.

Albert Mohler:              There’s a lot of interesting assertion out there that again comes down to generalization. One of the generalizations I was taught in high school, when high school still taught such material, and then in college and beyond, is that the one mind, more than any other, behind the American Revolutionary spirit and the American Constitutional experiment, especially when it comes to rights and to specifically religious liberty, was John Locke. That was just asserted. And a Lockean primacy and all these things was the argument for why this wasn’t Christianity, this was Locke. But you point out a major problem with that, and it reminds me of something that happened in my doctoral work. When someone made an argument that of course this person’s thought is influenced by this other man’s book. When one of the professors just looked over his glasses and said, “That would be quite impossible.” The student said, “Why?” And he said, “Because the book hadn’t been written yet.” There’s a bit of that in the misperceptions about John Locke.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. And we could spend a lot of time about Locke. For instance, there’s an entire cottage industry arguing is Locke’s political theology particularly in line with Christian, you know, traditional Christian thought? Many, many good scholars say yes. Many, many good scholars say no. But as I point out in the book, and I do a lot more of this in my book on Roger Sherman, every idea we usually attribute to Locke. The idea that humans are right bearers, that government comes about by a contract of the people, ultimately under the authority of God, of course. That tyrants may be resisted. These ideas are alive and well in the Protestant resistance literature. People get a little confused here because they stop reading with Calvin and his institutes, where Calvin clearly says, for instance, that inferior magistrates may resist a ruler who becomes a tyrant. But even as he’s doing that, you’ve got John Locke up in Scotland saying, “No, the people themselves may do this.” And then you’ve got just a few decades later the author of [inaudible 00:22:48], who lays out all these things. The social contract, natural rights, the ability to resist a tyrant. But to your point, there’s a very real question, where is Locke in America? Who is reading him? How are they appealing to him? Almost no one pays attention to anything other than his essay on human understanding, until you get to the 1740s, when the moral conservative new light types in these great debates in the First Great Awakening appeal to his letter on toleration, to make room for a more conservative theology alongside what was perceived to be a more liberal theology. It’s only in the war for American independence do you begin to see some references to the second treatise. And I’m sure, however we can properly Locke, I’m sure America’s founders were reading him as an ally, making arguments that were completely consonant with Christian thought.

Albert Mohler:              Right. The last thing I want to do is argue that Locke had no influence. But, it’s really interesting, if I had an endless number of days to do all the things I would like to do, one of the things I would like to do is to write on how an individual’s collection of books or library inevitably reveals their mind. Now that doesn’t always mean that they’re in agreement with the books, but it shows you at least what their interests were. And in the main, you can look at a library and you would say, “Here’s where this mind was directed.” One of the points you actually make in your book is that not that many libraries would have had a volume by John Locke to begin with.

Mark David Hall:           Not at all, no, it would have been very rare. 1774 is the first time Locke’s actually printed in America. He’s not reprinted until like the 1930s. I mean, America, we vastly overestimate the influence of John Locke, particularly in the 18th century.

Albert Mohler:              Questions of historical interpretation often filter down to the political level, often become a part of political controversy. But in the United States, this is particularly an urgent issue because we are talking about a relatively young nation, which is itself an experiment in liberty. And thus, questions about our founding, the intention of the founders, the character of the founders, the beliefs of the founders, they have an unusual importance as we think about even the issues of today. Thus, a lot of these arguments are filtered down into questions faced by the Supreme Court, and certainly faced by our national government and elected representatives. More than anything else, perhaps, this is fuel for debates in America’s academic centers. That’s one of the reasons why this conversation is both so timely and so important.

Albert Mohler:              I want to ask about natural law. All of a sudden, after decades of neglect this debate is back. Now, I want to point out, it’s not back nationwide. The left doesn’t care a bit about arguments about natural right. But on the right, amongst conservatives and particularly amongst Christian conservatives, there’s a new debate and interest conversation over natural rights. I’m a part of that conversation myself, and have been now for decades. It’s one of those conversations that I’m surprised on the one hand it’s become more intense, but on the other hand, given the cultural challenges, it makes perfect sense. But that’s one of the debates about the founders, do you find natural law, natural rights within the Bill of Rights?

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, absolutely. Natural law is in the air they breathed. Now they are not necessarily reading the Summa Theologiae and talking about Saint Thomas Aquinas, but you see it everywhere. In an example I give, James Wilson, an early Supreme Court Justice, gave a very systematic lecture, series of law lectures at the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. And early on, he says there are two types of law: divine and human. There are four types of divine law: eternal law, celestial law, natural physical law, natural moral law. Human law must be based upon the moral law. He actually quotes Augustine, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Every single Supreme Court Justice prior to John Marshall, except for James Iredell, is on record saying the Court could strike down an act of the legislature if it violated natural law. I mean, that’s an astounding statement when we recall that just a few years later, Marbury v. Madison, where the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an act of Congress based on the Constitution. And yeah, that was enormously controversial. Now things did begin to change in the legal arena in the 19th century, where we have the rise of positivism and pushed this sort of thinking to the side. But in the late 18th century, it is everywhere.

Albert Mohler:              Speaking of everywhere, or at least in many places, the states had very specific statements of deep theological significance. And one of them was Pennsylvania, famously Quaker.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Albert Mohler:              But in Quaker Pennsylvania and its 1776 Constitution, legislators were required to affirm, “I do believe in one God, the Creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.” 1776.

Mark David Hall:           Isn’t that amazing? Intolerant Quaker Pennsylvania. And there’s a good follow up to the story, as I’m sure you know. There are Jews in Philadelphia. And when Pennsylvania revisits its Constitution, first in 1783 and then in 1790, they say, “What about us? We can be good citizens.” And so in 1790, Pennsylvania changes its religious test. It doesn’t abolish it, but it just removed that business about the New Testament. But you still have to be a theist in order to hold civic office. And now Jews can hold office, as can Christians. But atheists are still banned from public office.

Mark David Hall:           And I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it was just, again, it was just sort of a common place. Of course, we want Christians to be in places of civic authority. We really just can’t trust atheists or people without such religious commitments.

Albert Mohler:              And those state requirements existed well into the American Constitutional order.

Mark David Hall:           That’s exactly right. 1787, 11 of the 13 states still had them. Into the late 18th, early 19th century, some of the new states added them. Some states did get rid of them. And, of course, U.S. Constitution bans religious tests for office. I think there are a variety of reasons for this.

Albert Mohler:              It banned religious tests for federal offices.

Mark David Hall:           Federal offices, yeah, that’s a very important qualification. And in part, one might argue that the state religious test in effect served as a … impacted who could hold national office. And, of course, there’s the oath requirement, which in the 18th century was only understood as a religious act. And so, some people actually argued, some people in the late 18th century, that there is a religious test in Article VI and elsewhere and that’s the oath of office.

Albert Mohler:              Now, when you’re looking at a major intellectual conflict like this, it’s never merely intellectual, it never was. It was political from the beginning. And just to make a generalization here, because we have to for purposes of conversation, in the period of the late 19th century in the United States, there was a shift towards a more progressivist understanding of American history, American destiny, that required kind of a retelling of the American beginning. And it was an intentional retelling. That retelling accelerated and became dominate in the U.S. and the progressivist era, especially after the first World War. And again, it came with a larger revolution, a larger intellectual revolution, a larger revolution in morals and in politics, it came with the progressivists’ ambitions for a wildly expansive government, and for a reinterpretation of the American Compact, which was never honestly presented to the American people.

Mark David Hall:           No, I think that’s exactly right. It’s among these progressives, where you have for the first time people challenging this doctrine of natural rights, challenging the Constitution, arguing that we should maybe toss it out and start again. You’re exactly right. And I think right alongside this, as you know, you begin to have America’s great universities become secular. Slowly, gradually, but over time. And so I think we saw generations of scholars that were produced that were very different than scholars that we had in the 18th century. And so these in combination with people with clear political agendas, when we get to things like the relationship between church and state, led to a host of really bad scholarly articles and books on religion and the founders and their views, with respect to religious liberty and church/state relations.

Albert Mohler:              And people have to tell a story, we have to know history as a story. That’s the only way we can tell it. And if you can succeed in telling the story your way and people receive that as the story, then you change minds. But that draws me to an epigram that you include in your book by Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous and acerbic atheist, who said, “The founders,” meaning the American founders, “are most certainly secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics, and it is enough to place them firmly on the side of those who object, for example, to ostentatious displays of the Ten Commandments in government owned places.” I just want to go back and say, fascinating if true, but not true.

Mark David Hall:           Not true at all. And in fact, I’m glad you read that quote. I begin each chapter, as you know, with six or seven prominent quotations. But if you go to the first footnote, I have another 20. So I give lots and lots of examples of prominent scholars, academics, popular authors who say these same things. Just last night I debated someone from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. And his argument against me was, “Well, Professor Hall, why do all these scholars say something differently than you?” Well, they’re wrong. And I’m not just asserting that, go to the evidence. And I attempt to make the argument, especially with respect church/state relations. There is no good argument that the founders wanted to strictly separate church and state, particularly in a way that would call into question the constitutionality of displays like the Ten Commandments on public property.

Albert Mohler:              Which they did, in their own way. I mean, even in the … as recently as well into the 20th century with the building of the Marble Palace as the home of the Supreme Court.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Albert Mohler:              Clear biblical references, clear references to the tables of the law. And you could say, and the left always says, “Well that’s just iconography, that’s just a remnant of a bygone past, that’s just celebrating the history of law.” But of course even seeing it, you know it’s more than that. But then we have the other problem where some Christians want to claim everybody’s a Christian, regardless of their theological confession. And they’ll see something like that and they’ll say, “Well look, everybody inside that building evidently was an Orthodox Trinitarian evangelical believer.” That’s not true either. And that’s where it gets to I think the biggest and most important point you make in the book, which is by the time you get down to your fifth option, that the founders were influenced by Christian ideas, I want to take that further and say they weren’t just ideas, it was a network of necessarily networked and connected ideas, that that’s what’s really beyond refutation. You’re not arguing, and you’re careful about this, that you’re going to define even the majority of the founders as members of the First Baptist Church, or an evangelical congregation of active profession. You are saying they were operating out of Christian ideas and that’s really the most important point.

Mark David Hall:           Absolutely. I do attack, very viciously I think, in a good sort of way, the myth that most or many of them were deists. And I do think there are plenty of reasons to believe that many that we have records for were Orthodox Christians. But you’re exactly right, it is the ideas that influenced them that are the most important. Things like humans being images of God, created the Imago Dei. Humans being sinful, and even redeemed humans struggling with the old man within. Their understanding of liberty profoundly Christian, this is all over the place. And here’s a useful contrast, would say Enlightenment thought. If you think about it, at least some of the prominent forms of Enlightenment thought in the era would have centralized government power run by the experts, the educated experts. And that only makes sense if you believe that reason is king. Why let the “hoi polloi”, the many, the regular people, be involved in this thing? And why keep the experts from doing what they need to do? This is the problem with progressivism, right? The progressives in early 20th century America wanted to centralize power, get the experts in charge to fix everything. Whenever this happens, tyranny is a result. Fortunately, America’s founders did not buy into these sort of utopian speculations.

Albert Mohler:              Certainly by and large.

Mark David Hall:           By and large.

Albert Mohler:              And certainly those who were influential in the framing of the Constitution, and certainly those who received the Constitution. When you asked the question, what in the world were the people in the colonies that became the states, that became the United States of America, what were they thinking? And again, you have modern secular people who want to present modern secularism as having been there when it wasn’t. When I wrote my book, Atheism Remix, I can still remember one night when I’m well into writing the third or fourth chapter of the book, when a primary question struck me, which was, who used the word atheist first? And in the English language we have that wonderful resource of the Oxford Dictionary.

Mark David Hall:           Right.

Albert Mohler:              Of the English language, which I have in my library. And it’s massive and heavy, and I don’t actually go to it as often as I would like, but I went to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language and found that the word atheist was not used until Tudor England, and only then hypothetically. And it was used by Miles Coverdale, translating the Bible, trying to come up with what exactly it meant for the fool to say in his heart there is no God. So in other words, he didn’t know any atheists. There weren’t any atheists, if there had been atheists in Elizabethan England, they would have been in big trouble, bodily trouble.

Mark David Hall:           Absolutely.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah.

Albert Mohler:              And so, but people want to say, “Well, you know, atheists, this goes back to a long free thinking tradition.” Well, try to find them. And it wasn’t available, that’s the point. And even Richard Dawkins, this incredibly assertive atheist, he’s one of the ones who points out, and I quote him often in saying this, it took Darwin to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. So, even when you’re looking at the founding fathers and the founding generation, they didn’t have a notion of how the world could exist other than a Creator God. They didn’t have a notion of a universe in which at the very least God’s moral attributes were written into the warp and woof of creation. They didn’t have a notion of human beings except as created by God. You’ve got to go back to the ideas available to them at the time.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, I think that’s absolutely correct. So the few that kind of lean in the direction of atheist, Jefferson, or deist I should say, not atheist, Jefferson or Franklin, I mean there’s no good reason to say they are atheist, and really I’m not even sure it’s accurate to call those guys deists. They were heterodox Christians, but buy into a lot of the key tenets of Christianity. God as a creator, God as the originator of moral standards, and that sort of thing.

Albert Mohler:              And also give them the footnote that especially for those who were influenced by France, or the continent, there were, I will call them, not atheists, but skeptics. There were religious skeptics for sure. There were skeptics who didn’t believe any religion and they even questioned theism, but they didn’t have any replacement for it. There was no available worldview alternative. And so they were basically skeptics.

Mark David Hall:           I think that’s exactly right.

Albert Mohler:              That’s very different than an atheist. Which, and by the way, I’m going to kind of fast forward to one of the points you make at the end of the book, which is something I end up discussing over and over again, which is Americans still don’t vote for atheists.

Mark David Hall:           That’s right.

Albert Mohler:              And you know, we have no religious tests for public office on the part of the government, but voters can vote however they want to vote.

Mark David Hall:           Absolutely.

Albert Mohler:              And woe unto the politician who tells them how they can and can’t vote. But the reality is, in supposedly modern secular America, Americans don’t entrust high office to atheists. Or at least they haven’t.

Mark David Hall:           That’s exactly right. So they’ve taken polls like this since the ’50s at least. Back in the ’50s, you know, what percentage would vote for an African American for president? You know, 60% would say no, 60% wouldn’t vote for a woman. You know, maybe 80% for an atheist. Today you’ve got about 3% who wouldn’t vote for an African American, about 3% who wouldn’t vote for a woman. It’s still right around a majority who would not vote for an atheist, for that reason alone

Albert Mohler:              And they don’t.

Mark David Hall:           And they don’t.

Albert Mohler:              And politicians don’t generally identify as atheists. You know, I did a coverage on this on The Briefing recently, and noted that by one of their own counts, it was three people holding federal office.

Mark David Hall:           And this is pretty recent. I think if you go back a decade it’s zero.

Albert Mohler:              You don’t have to go back that far. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Go back about five years when there was one.

Mark David Hall:           Right. That sounds right.

Albert Mohler:              And so you look at all this and you recognize there has to be something big behind this, and that is evidenced by the fact that thus far, so far as I know, your book’s not required reading at Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Ohio State in American history. And it’s because people won’t want it to be.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, I’m afraid that’s right. I, of course, would love it to be read at places like that. And I think it could change minds. In all honesty, I imagine a lot of the audience would be people sympathetic to the sort of things you and I are saying. And so what I think the book would do in their case is give them tools to defend what they sort of intuitively know to be the case.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, I meant my statement maybe perhaps even more strongly than I made it.

Mark David Hall:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Albert Mohler:              This will not be a welcome argument in the American academy.

Mark David Hall:           Oh, not at all, no. No, that’s exactly right. I get pushed back about this all the time. In my case, and I don’t mean this in any sort of arrogant sense, but I’ve written or edited a dozen books, including with the Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press, and with colleagues like Daniel Dreisbach and others. I think we’ve been pushing the ball somewhat down the field and making it hard to ignore these arguments. And so, I think we have made a difference at the elite level. Although they’re never going to be happy with this argument and hopefully this book will help move the ball some at the popular level.

Albert Mohler:              I hope so. But that raises another issue a little closer to home, one of the issues of I would say evangelical intellectual advance in the academy, and in one sense we’ve only really had two areas in which I think the secular academy has taken account of evangelical scholars, and that would be in philosophy. And I say evangelical, that’s too limited, Christian.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah.

Albert Mohler:              Assertively Christian, identified by some form of Christian identity. It would be in philosophy and Alvin Plantinga.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah.

Albert Mohler:              You know, et cetera. And in history, George Marsden, Mark Noll, and the many, many doctoral students both have produced.

Mark David Hall:           Sure, oh, they’re great.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah. Well, and they really have made a huge contribution. But they’re not going to like your book either. Explain this to us.

Mark David Hall:           You know, some of them will like it more than others. And I’ve engaged with all these people, I actually studied under Noll at Wheaton College and what not. And I think, you know, of course Noll, Marsden, and Hatch famously came out with the book, In Search of Christian America, responding basically to Frankie Schaeffer. But I think over time they’ve recognized that they might have overstated their case and they’ve pulled back from it. I’ve had Mark Noll write a forward to one of the books I’ve edited and that sort of thing. So it’ll be interesting to see how it is received. I’m cautiously optimistic, let’s put it that way.

Albert Mohler:              Well let me play out a narrative and just see if it sounds true to you. I think that a lot of evangelical scholars of a certain generation were embarrassed by evangelical anti-intellectualism. By a lack of concern for history as a method and history as a discipline, and so they were determined to gain the respect of the academy, not by selling out, but by working according to historical norms while holding on to an evangelical theological identity. That I understand, and that I respect. The problem is that there are certain memes, certain ideas, nonetheless that have come from even those earlier books you mentioned, such as by Marsden and Noll, that really have become kind of standard fare amongst many who consider themselves evangelicals.

Mark David Hall:           Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. So, yeah, I always want to be careful, you know, assuming motives or this sort of thing.

Albert Mohler:              I’ve tried not to in making that statement, other than the best motives.

Mark David Hall:           No, and I didn’t mean that you did. So I think you’re right, there’s definitely a desire to be taken seriously intellectually, and that’s a good thing, right? We want more evangelicals or conservative Christians to enter the academy and be taken seriously by their peers. And they do a lot of good stuff. I’ve read almost literally every book Marsden, Noll and Hatch have wrote.

Albert Mohler:              Yeah, as have I. Some of them more than once.

Mark David Hall:           They’re great. Part of the problem is I think that In Search of Christian America was really kind of polemical, thrown together quickly. If you look at it, they do the same sort of things about these other books by far more hostile historians and popular authors. They just look at the five or so elite founders, Franklin, Jefferson and Adams, and they respond to some of those, maybe let’s call them popular Christian historians who want to argue for the Orthodoxy of a Jefferson. And they say, “No, no, no.” And then they make these broad claims, and this is one thing that I’ve noticed that historians like to say, “Things are messy. Some founders were deists, some were Orthodox Christians, you know, it’s hard to say.” Well, you know, it’s not really that messy in all honesty. I think it’s similar to saying some African Americans are Republicans, some African Americans are Democrats, so it’s messy. Well, it’s kind of messy in that it’s a true statement, but the reality is a vast majority of African Americans vote Democratic in any given election. I think the historical reality is, virtually none of the founders that we know about were heterodox Christians. None of them, with the exception of Ethan Allen, were deists. And we have every reason to believe that a large number of them were Orthodox, and even more so and more importantly that they were influenced by Christian ideas. And here I’m referring to all of them. Even those that had more heterodox convictions.

Albert Mohler:              It’s an ongoing conversation and I think your new book, Did America Have A Christian Founding, is a very important contribution to that discussion. But it’s an ongoing discussion, so by the time you finish a book like this, just about the time it’s released to the public, there are already new dimensions to the question. Right down to the 2020 presidential campaign and issues of religious liberty that aren’t just hypothetical and rooted in America’s founding, but issues that are as current as whether or not a Christian cake baker is going to face criminal sanctions for trying to operate in his business, or a Christian florist in her business, without violating Christian conscience. So this is today.

Mark David Hall:           That’s exactly right. And as I argue in the book, the founders embraced a very robust understanding of religious liberty that applies to all citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike. And clearly they understood what is generally called religious accommodations or religious exemptions. That is when you have a neutral law but this runs afoul of someone’s religious convictions, what do you do? Well one approach is just to say, “Too bad for you.” Another approach would be to slightly change the law to let them do something else. So a great example of this is the presidential oath of office in the U.S. Constitution. Now virtually no Christians object to swearing oaths. But a very few do, the Quakers and Mennonites and Brethren, and so the founders took this into account when they wrote out this oath of office, you have to solemnly swear or affirm, right? Make an exemption for the Quakers. When James Madison proposed what became the second amendment, he had a specific religious exemption for religious passivists, so that they would not be forced to serve in the military against their will. And this, I suggest in the book, I think is an easy way to deal with, a reasonable way, a fair way to deal with your Christian florist, your Christian baker, who has a sincere religious conviction against participating in the same-sex wedding ceremony. Some religious conservatives would say the solution is to just get rid of laws protecting LGBTQ citizens. That’s just not a realistic option, I don’t think, in this day and age, at least in the vast majority of states that have adopted those laws. An easy way and a fair way and a reasonable way, I think, would just be to create a religious exemption to protect small business owners who have sincere religious objections or moral objections to communicating certain messages. Easy to do and it prevents a parade of horribles that is always trotted out whenever this sort of case, or this sort of solution, is suggested.

Albert Mohler:              I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, Professor Hall. This is a very timely, timely book. There’s a sense in which I have the feeling, the sense reading your book that I often have, and that is, oh that it had been written 20 years earlier the discussion might be different today. But this is at least a down payment on the fact that 20 years hence we can hope the conversation’s quite different.

Mark David Hall:           I hope so.

Albert Mohler:              Professor Mark David Hall, thank you for joining me today for Thinking In Public.

Mark David Hall:           Thank you very much for having me, I’m very grateful.

Albert Mohler:              Our understanding of history has a great deal to do with our perception of reality, our understanding of historical context, even answering who we are. Answering the question, what does America mean? What was it meant to mean? What did those who established this nation mean? What did they believe? And, of course, these questions, as we said, are not only controversial, they’re so important because they are essential to understanding who we are and answering big questions faced by Americans today. The religious beliefs, the actual religious beliefs, and the worldviews of the American founders, well, these issues have found their way into controversy going all the way back to the earliest decades of the American experience. But especially in the 20th century, they became matters of open controversy and open consideration in argument. Frankly, by the time you get to the 21st century, America seems to be inundated with bad arguments based upon historical inaccuracies or generalizations. This new book by Professor Hall and the conversation we’ve just been privileged to have, indicates at least an advance on the discussions Americans need to have, and the knowledge Americans need to have in order to understand these questions. And to understand our founders, which means by extension, going a long way towards understanding the nation.

Albert Mohler:              I enjoyed this conversation here in the studio with Professor Mark David Hall. And I thank him today for joining me for Thinking In Public. If you enjoyed this episode of Thinking In Public, you can find over 100 of these conversations at albertmohler.com, under the tab Thinking In Public.

For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

Thank you today for joining me for Thinking In Public.

And until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.