Friday, October 12, 2012

George Marsden and Mark Noll on America's Christian Roots

Two of my Christian intellectual heroes:


1 comment:

Mark Hall said...

I have a great respect for them as well, and Mark Noll was kind enough to write a foreword to The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life. But I do think The Search For Christian America and this interview distort the faith commitments of many founders. This is a result of focus on the views of only a few unrepresentative elites.

Consider for a moment the background and experiences of these folks. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were southern Anglican plantation owners. Hamilton was born and raised in the British West Indies, and in an era when few people traveled internationally, Jefferson and John Adams spent significant time in Europe. Franklin lived most of the last thirty-five years of his life in Britain and France. As adults, Franklin and Hamilton were nominal Anglicans, which means five of these six founders (83%) were Episcopalians (compared to 16% of all Americans in that era). Although 50 to 75 percent of Americans in the founding era may be reasonably classified as Calvinists, only one founder regularly referred to in these discussions worshiped at a Calvinist church—and John Adams is not a particularly good representative of this theological tradition.

True, Noll and Marsden call these folks "major" founders, but it is easy to slip from a focus on a few to the views of many (e.g. "The God of the founding fathers was a benevolent deity, not far removed from the God of eighteenth-century Deists..." Search for Christian America, 73). They always note that "some" founders were orthodox, but I would suggest this is as misleading as noting that "some" African Americans are Democrats.

I am not prepared to argue that many founders should be called "evangelical," but how about Calvinists? If we expand range of founders to include folks like Samuel Adams, Elias Boudinot, Eliphalet Dyer, Oliver Ellsworth, Matthew Griswold, John Hancock, Benjamin Huntington, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, William Paterson, Tapping Reeve, Jesse Root, Roger Sherman, John Treadwell, Jonathan Trumbull, William Williams, John Witherspoon, Oliver Wolcott, and Robert Yates, we get a very different impression of the founding generation (including folks like Roger Sherman who were key players in crafting America's founding documents (unlike many, but not all, of the more famous founders).

And of course non-Calvinists can be good Christians too (e.g. John Jay, Patrick Henry, Henry Laurens).

With all of that said, I agree with most of the video clip. I just want to make sure we don't limit discussion of America's founders to a few unrepresentative elites.

Mark David Hall