Christian Nation v. Christian Influence, Again
James Patterson has written a very fine review (“Up from the Liberal Founding”) of a very fine book over at Acton Institute.
The book is The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics by Kody Cooper and Justin Dyer, and it has been the talk of the town over the past year, at least in niche-nerd circles.
Patterson situates, summarizes, and appreciates the book well. Cooper and Dyer challenge modernist and Lockean-liberal narratives of the founding, either outright rejecting or heavily qualifying both. Patterson: “To date, Dyer and Cooper have written the strongest refutation of the ‘Lockean founding’ hypothesis and best ‘maximalist’ reading of the American founding as classical and Christian.”
Again, the book is essential reading, and Patterson’s review is a perfect introduction if you want to get your feet wet. The book itself isn’t our focus here. Rather, a line in Patterson’s review—I think, the only line I disagreed with—will occupy us.
“Critical to this effort [i.e., to understand the founding as something other than liberal or as Lockean simpliciter] is to frame the question correctly. Dyer and Cooper are not arguing that America is a Christian nation but that it had a classical and Christian founding. The ‘Christian nation’ hypothesis has largely been a project of older Protestant preachers and activists seeking to identify in the American founding the same faith practiced in their own churches, leading sometimes to the historiographical excesses like those of David Barton and his now discredited book on Thomas Jefferson.”
That paragraph sets the stage. Here’s the real kicker: “The ‘classical and Christian founding’ hypothesis is a more sensible subject, as it is one scholars can answer in a book-length project and is also sufficient for those challenging the centrality of liberalism.” The latter clause of this sentence is puzzling. How is the Christian nation hypothesis not sufficient for challenging the centrality of liberalism? No matter. The first half is more of interest. Patterson’s opinion that Cooper and Dyer represent true accomplishment and, perhaps, the best challenging to prevailing assumptions is undoubtedly correct. But why is the Christian nation hypothesis unsensible or at least less sensible? That is, unserious. The imbedded claim seems to be that no serious scholar is engaging it, only lay zealots. I’m not convinced. A rapid fire response is in order here.
We should commend Patterson, as a Catholic, for not (from what I’ve seen) committing the Catholic replacement maneuver—a fallacy of infinite regression—other of his brethren have attempted. And here we are dealing with Christianity generally, not Protestantism specifically. Patterson simply does not think the Christian nation hypothesis appropriate or attainable. Patterson does not explain why. But we can still pose the question to ourselves. At the outset it is worth noting that a Christian founding without a Christian nation seems a bizarre occurrence. Mentioned already is that Christianity is combined with classical influence by Cooper and Dyer. This is undoubtedly correct. Remember the memes about men thinking about Rome at least once a day? That was the founders. They were antiquity LARP’ers and, as Curtis Yarvin puts it, “law nerds.” It’s all true.
But we must remember also that they lived in the late eighteenth century, long after classical sources had been thoroughly appropriated and integrated by Christendom, and also that their own local milieu was conditioned by Protestantism, then over 200 years old in the mother country. In other words, they loved and quoted their Seneca and Cicero but inevitably and inescapably read all of it as Christians—forget about their personal convictions for a moment. That was their world. It is hard for us, on the other hand, standing both chronologically and intellectually further away from the founders than they did from the magisterial Reformers, to receive texts as they did. That is, to read, say, Locke or Hobbes, as an early modern Protestant. What we see is not necessarily what they saw or assumed. We can only attempt to recover their own reading through their own writing, but the degrees of separation already begin to mount, as you can see. We it otherwise we would not have so many gainfully employed “experts” in the overly-saturated and overly-obscured field of “founding” studies; they simply wouldn’t be able to get away with the level of criminality most of them practice.
To return to our central inquiry: Patterson says the Christian nation hypothesis is one for partisan preachers and activists, not real scholars. Or at least not sensible ones, and here, predictably, David Barton is inserted to ward off anyone who might be drifting too far from sensibility. That is, the established respectability structures, the status hierarchy.
Now, to be clear, Barton’s now rightly discredited Jefferson Lies is not a model to emulate. It wasn’t satisfied with combating secularist biographers doing their own hagiography. Barton attempted not just to complicate Deism narratives but attempted to replace them with one of orthodoxy on the part of the Jefferson. An unlikely and foolhardy endeavor on its face. That said, I tend to side with Mark David Hall in thinking that people like Barton, sloppy and ideological as they may be, instinctively get more right than they get wrong. They at least know how to spot the errors of their ideological opponents; they just overcorrect quite a bit and choose their targets poorly. Calling Barton an amateur historian refers only to these defects, not his lack of credentials. Most of his critics seem to dismissively fixate on the credentials, in which case someone like Jon Meachem or David McCullough should be sidelined. But, of course, those two aren’t ostracized. They are accepted for the place in their profession they occupy, viz., that of popular historian. And this because they respect the preexisting standards of sense and sensibility of their guild, which is to say, the veneer of neutrality, or at least being partisan in the right direction. Partisanship is rarely admitted by the professional class but easily discernable in its effects. All research is curation but the standard by which curation is dictated often tells you what you need to know about the intended result.
Enough about Barton and back to Patterson—the above commentary was not aimed at him.
The Christian nation question may not appear sensible to modern academics, but it was sensible to past generations, especially those living in the first American century. Good historians should ask not only our own questions of the past but should investigate the questions the past asked of itself and take the answers they discover seriously.
John Marshall thought the American population was “entirely Christan,” as were American institutions. Jospeh Story thought Christianity was engrained in the common law—indeed, an “antecedent law”—and that America was generally Christian. For some time, American courts thought America was Christian. Presidents like John Adams thought America constituted a Christian people. John Jay thought Christianity served as the shared colonial religion. Preachers and theologians like Jasper Adams, Ezra Stiles Ely, Samuel Wylie, and Charles Hodge—all coming from different perspectives and purposes on the issue— famously contended that America was a Christian nation. Et cetera. For better or worse, Robert Handy and Ray Allen Billington recount how animating the self-conception of America as English and Protestant was for early nineteenth century anti-Catholic and nativist reactions. At least some large proportion of Americans on the ground between 1800 and 1860 thought this way.
Seems like something worth looking into, especially if David Hacket Fischer is right that “Of all the determinants which shaped the cultural character of British America, the most power was religion,” and that this religious, culture-shaping scope was limited to Protestantism.
Let’s be clear, the question of the Christian nation hypothesis, as well as several of the other more accepted hypotheses, is wrapped up in questions of church and state. It has always been thus and likely always will be. As Madison thought, the church-state question must be informed by history. It is difficult for most to do history well without importing their own contemporary aspirations. This accounts for much of the Jeffersonian preference in modern history and jurisprudence. I digress.
But back to the Christian nation hypothesis proper. Is it a sensible inquiry as opposed to the other side of Patterson’s dichotomy, viz., Christian plus something else founding v. Christian nation. This, it seems to me, is another way of saying Christian influence v. self-consciously and intentionally Christian. The former is usually considered the more respectable take because it can be accounted for by pure chronology and osmosis and needn’t admit intentionality. Plus, the more extreme elements of the Christian portion of the influence can be balanced or moderated by its companions. Influence, in these discussions, demotes Christianity to one of many contributors to an amalgamation of something new. Nation suggests a kind of formal and informal codification of Christianity. The latter is more authoritative if true in part because it speaks to original intentionality, again, either through explicit assertion or through undisrupted status quo. In some cases, however, influence v. nation may be a distinction without a difference. Mark David Hall recently said that the main reason he has made the semantic choice for influence over founding or nation is for the purpose of contemporary reception. Kudos to Hall for putting his cards on the table. It’s not a warrantless decision.
To repeat, the question is whether the Christian nation hypothesis is sensible, which is to say, respectable, or merely the province of partisans and quacks.
In 2003, James Hutson tackled the Christian nation question, thoroughly debunking prevailing assumption that late eighteenth century church membership and attendance was pitifully low. (See also Hutson’s 2008 book, Church and State in America.) Observing that the earliest case for an unchurched American founding was made by openly partisan early twentieth century academics, and that said case was purely speculative and lacked any documentation, Hutson also dismantled the more popular figures from Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. The latter team had clearly ignored earlier work from Patricia Bonomi and Peter Eisenstadt who were, unlike Stark and Finke, actual historians of early America, not sociologists. Bonomi and Eisenstadt introduced a better paradigm for assessment, “church adherence.”
This approach accounted for the intense religiosity of the colonies, especially in Presbyterian and Congregationalist circles wherein the Lord’s table was, perhaps, too rigorously “fenced” and full membership too limited. (Bonomi, Eisenstadt, and Hutson do not mention that at least in Congregationalist New England, full membership, as opposed to “half-way” membership was also voluntarily limited by would be communicants because of the intense social and political expectations attached to it.) In other words, numbers aren’t everything. “Church adherence” was markedly bigger than church membership and especially if the latter doesn’t account for tiered membership in New England. Angst surrounding the supper or complications for Anglicans in Virginia due to the absence of bishops does not imply religious “indifference,” as so many scholars and laymen assume.
More devastating for the Stark-Fiske thesis, Hutson demonstrated that their population figures were problematic generally and that their church membership averages were derived from only three sources, all from the nineteenth-century, and then from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations. Baptists and Methodists were a distinct minority in the late eighteenth century; Congregationalists and Anglicans weren’t accounted for at all by Stark and Fiske. Hutson produces more reliable figures and, plugged into a well-rounded methodology, concludes that Bonomi and Eisenstadt were right, if by different means: more than 70% of late eighteenth century Americans were either church members (of some tier) or regularly attended church. In New England, it was more like 87%. Some congregations drew thousands of attendees weekly; most people were baptized and thoroughly “churched,” and probably catechized. It is ridiculous to assume that unaccounted for early Americans on the frontier were pagans or occultists.
Hutson spends too much time, in my view, trying to discern the extent of true belief and sincere religious commitment. There is, of course, much evidence for that too. But for purposes of the Christian nation question—a socio-political one—this matters less than praxis. And the thrust of Hutson’s research is concerned with just that, the facts on the ground. Not internal sentiments of the populace, but demonstrable, regular and customary behavior. We will come in a moment to the related point of institutions and law.
In any case, based on an assessment of true church adherence alone, Hutson concludes: “What then emerges is a message that, until the last few years, has never known interference: the United States during the Founding Period was a Christian nation.” Again, Hutson was writing in 2003.
An addendum is attached to that essay (“The Christian Nation Question”) in which Hutson goes further, producing more evidence that America was a Christian nation at the founding. Against the indifference thesis and in favor of the Christian nation hypothesis—i.e., a Christian people acting for their own good self-consciously as Christians—religiosity and Christian identity flourished after 1776. Commentary on the Massachusetts constitution (1780) in the Continental Journal observed, “here we have a body of men who call themselves Christian, engaged to make provision for the public worship of God, meaning the worship of Christians (for certainly they did not mean Jewish or Pagan worship.)” All but two of the thirteen states restricted public office to Christians (some limited to professing Protestants); all but one punished blasphemy. Sabbath laws were ubiquitous. In 1776, Congress had petitioned God for forgiveness of national sin “through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ.” Public support for Christianity and the “gospel ministry,” as New York’s constitution put it continued. Jefferson praised his own first term administration for having left state-level religious establishments alone. The master of Monticello opened federal buildings to church services just as Chief Justice Marshall’s Court was at the disposal of the same. “On Sundays in Washington the state literally became the Christian church,” concludes Hutson. Sounds a lot like the Protestant, Constantinian ideal wherein, to borrow from Francis Turretin, the state acts as a “guest house” for the church.
If an esteemed scholar like Hutson can see and believe all this, it seems sensible enough… maybe even book-length sensible. Hutson is not alone, of course, but maybe the last man standing of an old guard that included people like Samuel Huntington, viz., real scholars not bound by guild pieties and lovers of American Protestant inheritance. We need more of them.
Image Credit: “The City of Philadelphia,” engraving, London Gentleman’s Magazine, 1762