More Than an Academic Debate

I want to step back from this discussion to ask the more fundamental question of why this debate is so important to a segment of the U.S. population. A common response is that professional historians, many of whom have secularist leanings, have given Christianity, and its impact on our nation’s history, a short shrift, either marganalizing it or portraying it in negative terms. As a result, there is a desire to “set the record straight”—as if there is an identifiably “correct” interpretation of history that should then be embedded in perpetuity. That said, Professor Hall and his cohort of like-minded scholars have contributed to the discipline by expanding our understanding of our past and by challenging oversimplified assumptions about the nation’s founders. I chiefly disagree with the conclusions he draws.

There is a second, and darker, explanation for why a religionist interpretation of the founding is so important to some people. For many white evangelicals, it is about the privileging of a white Christian narrative about America, one that excludes or marginalizes other communities of color, gender, or religious faith. As two scholars recently described it, “the sizable portion of Americans who pine for Christianity’s former prominence in American civic life feel threatened and marginalized. They fear that their values and priorities will, at best, no longer be dominant.”[1] This is why arguments about America’s Christian nationhood resonate so strongly with white supremacists. With the nation’s increasing racial and religious diversification, many white Americans fear a loss of privilege, both ethnically and religiously. Numerous scholars have documented this rise in white Christian nationalism. I witnessed this crossover firsthand ten years ago when I testified before the Texas State Board of Education against proposed revisions to the statewide social studies curriculum. The same revisionist proponents who advocated a pro-Christian interpretation of American history also sought to expunge much of the curriculum that promoted multiculturalism.

And then, this Christian founding narrative becomes embedded in partisan politics. Just this past Sunday (June 28), Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a large “Celebrate Freedom Sunday” rally at First Baptist Church in Dallas (despite the surge in COVID-19 in Texas). Although Pence’s remarks were restrained—aside from saying that the foundation of American freedoms was faith—he strongly endorsed the pastor of First Baptist Church, Robert Jeffress, who is a leading Christian nationalist. Jeffress recently said, ”The framers of the Constitution and earliest jurists demonstrated a clear preference for Christianity. They did not hesitate to declare that America was a Christian nation.”[2] The political messaging is unmistakable.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that Professor Hall or his fellow scholars fall into the latter group or sympathize with them. But there is a reason why many people are interested in “rediscovering” the Christian influences on the nation’s founding and why that narrative is so important to them. This is not simply an academic debate.


[1] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 4-5.

[2] Ibid., 4.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Brooke Allen argues that while the American founders thought virtue was essential to good government, there were other ideals of virtue besides those of religion. She suggests that the idea of civic virtue did much of the work, in the founders’ minds, that was supposed to preserve the republic. She adds that while a large majority of Americans were Calvinists at the time of the founding, the founders owed more of their political thought to Montesquieu than they ever did to Calvin.

  • Faith played a strong role in the American founding, says Prof. Thomas Kidd. But it may not be the role we expect. “Deism” meant several different things at the time, and it’s not always clear what the founders meant when they used the term to describe themselves. And even religious freethinkers in the 18th century would be thoroughly versed in the Bible; this was a mark of education, but not necessarily of orthodoxy.

  • Prof. Steven Green argues that the founders were trying to create a government based on consent, and not on any theory of divine right. The document was not “godless,” because the founders were not godless men themselves. They were concerned, however, that consent remain at the forefront, and so they avoided the language—common at the time—that would have asserted a divine institution.