Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding
by Steven K. Green
Oxford, 312 pages, $29.95
Many Americans have embraced one of two myths concerning the role of religion in the American founding. The first, widespread in nineteenth-century America and kept alive by popular Christian authors today, is that virtually all the founders were pious, orthodox believers who sought to establish a Christian nation. The second, which became widespread among activists, academics, and jurists in the twentieth century, is that most of America’s founders were Enlightenment deists who created a secular republic that strictly separated church and state.
Steven Green, a law professor at Willamette University and former director of legal affairs for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is primarily interested in the first of these myths. As used in the book, myth “means an explanation of events that assists in the development of a cultural and national identity.” Thus a myth can be true, but Green believes that there is very little truth in the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.
Green is on solid ground when he challenges some manifestations of the first myth, such as the nineteenth-century fiction that early American civic leaders were committed to religious liberty for all. But I am not sure it is accurate to say that this narrative is “generally unquestioned” today. Indeed, I expect it is far more common for contemporary teachers and professors to describe the Puritans as intolerant theocrats rather than advocates of religious freedom.
Similarly, Green offers a reasonable critique of overstated or unsubstantiated claims about the nation's Christian heritage made by popular Christian authors today. But he is less persuasive when he challenges scholars who contend that America’s founders were influenced in significant ways by Christianity. For instance, he is too dismissive of academics who argue that the founders were informed by political ideas developed and popularized in America by Reformed thinkers, preachers, and civic leaders. To give just one example, he rejects arguments made by H. Richard Niebuhr, Clinton Rossiter, and others that early Reformed views on covenanting informed the founders’ views on the importance of political consent. They err in his mind because they do not “take into account the influence of John Locke’s systematic writings on political compact theory.”
These scholars were, of course, well aware of Locke's political philosophy and the early- to mid-twentieth century truism that he had a profound influence on America’s founders. Over the past fifty years, however, scholars have become more skeptical of this claim, and there is a virtual cottage industry about the extent to which Locke’s political philosophy is a logical extension of Reformed political theory or a radical departure from it. If it is the latter, the question of how American colonists read him remains to be answered. The nuances of these debates are nowhere to be found in Inventing America.
Unlike many critics of the Christian nation myth, Green recognizes the inaccuracy of describing America’s founders as deists. Yet he is convinced that “Enlightenment rationalism and possibly deistic thought complemented the liberal and latitudinarian beliefs of many of the Founders.” This is particularly true of elite groups, such as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, a majority of whom “possessed rational or heterodox beliefs . . . only a handful were theologically orthodox in their outlook.”
Multiple scholars have made these sorts of claims, but none of them have ever made a persuasive argument to support them. Like Green, they generalize from the views of a handful of indisputably important but unrepresentative founders. It is reasonable to describe Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams as “religious rationalists,” but the evidence that Washington, Madison, and Hamilton shared these views is far weaker than Green allows. Moreover, among the larger constellation of founders—even if only those active on the national stage—there is precious little evidence that “many” or “most” founders were religious rationalists.
Green is not unaware of this problem, but his solution is to criticize “Christian nationalists and conservative scholars” who “overemphasize” “second tier” founders such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Jay, Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon. I am co-editor of one of the two books he cites as being guilty of this offense: The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life. This volume, along with two other books I co-edited, The Founders on God and Government and Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, contain essays written by scholars from a wide range of perspectives and include chapters on everyone who could be considered a “first tier” founder. They expand in useful ways our understanding of the founders’ religious views and their approach to church-state relations without overstating the importance of “second tier” founders.
Even so, I think it is reasonable to question whether it even makes sense to talk about “tiers” of founders. Consider the case of Roger Sherman, the only founder to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the Constitution (1787). He served longer in the Continental and Confederation Congresses than all but four men, and he was regularly appointed to key committees, including those charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, Sherman often outmaneuvered Madison and, indeed, according to David Brian Robertson, the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman . . . may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.” He was also a representative and senator in the new republic where, among other things, he played a significant role in drafting the Bill of Rights.
Was Sherman more important than the six “first tier” founders favored by Green? An excellent argument can be made that he had a greater influence on the drafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights than five of these six men. And Sherman is a far better representative of the 50 percent to 75 percent of Americans in that era who can be reasonably be classified as Calvinists than are Green’s “first tier” founders—five of whom worshiped in Anglican churches by the end of their lives.
In his conclusion, Green complains about those who would “simplify the Founding into an uncomplicated form that meets the hopes and aspirations of many Americans.” He has in mind supporters of the first myth mentioned above, but this complaint could easily be made about Inventing America. Green corrects a few of the more outlandish claims by proponents of the myth that America was founded by Enlightenment deists, but he clearly believes this narrative is mostly true. A careful examination of religion and the founding generation reveals a far more complicated—and Christian—story than Green is willing to acknowledge.
Mark David Hall is Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics and Faculty Fellow in the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University. He is the author of Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic.