Can A “Christian Nation” Be Good For Everybody?May 30, 2023
The following is a book review for Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans by Mark David Hall.
There are few artifacts more enduring in the American imagination and more symbolic of our national ethos and essence than the Liberty Bell. The bronze “State House bell” was ordered from the Whitehouse Foundry in London by Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, in 1751. After the bell cracked on its first ring, local metal workers John Pass and John Stow melted down the bell and cast a new one. Famously, after 90 years of hard use, their “Liberty Bell” also developed a crack—a crack made more noticeable in 1846 when technicians attempted (unsuccessfully) to repair the bell and stop the crack by making it wider. Today the 2,000-pound bell sits in the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia and is viewed by more than a million visitors every year.
The bell is so well known as a historical artifact, and “liberty” has such a universal and positive ring for most Americans, we forget that the Liberty Bell is a manifestly Christian artifact and symbol. The name “Liberty Bell”—first employed, in 1835, by an anti-slavery publication—comes from the biblical inscription that runs around the bronze exterior: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereto” (Leviticus 25:10). During the nineteenth century, the bell’s inscription became a rallying cry for abolitionists. After the Civil War, the bell traveled across the country for displays and commemorations, helping to remind the fractured nation that the colonies once fought together for liberty from British tyranny. If there was anything that could bring the country back together after four years of conflict and 600,000 deaths it was an appeal to the nation’s past—a shared history that believed in freedom and believed in the Bible, even if both of these beliefs were sometimes held to with tragic inconsistency.
A Narrow Purpose
Mark David Hall’s new book Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans (Fidelis Books, 2023) seeks to remind us of this shared history. Hall, a Professor of Politics at George Fox University and a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s James Madison Program, is no stranger to his subject matter, having written or edited books on America’s Christian founding, on faith and the founders, and on religion and public life in the founding era. The best way to read this new work is to understand that Hall is making an argument. That is to say, Hall does not attempt anything like a comprehensive analysis of freedom and equality in American life, nor does he seek to provide an exhaustive evaluation of Christianity’s contribution to public life in America.
No doubt, the biggest criticism of the book will be along these lines: that Hall has given a truncated, one-sided, overly rosy picture of Christian influence in America. Such criticisms, however, miss the point of what Hall is trying to accomplish. If Hall pushes hard in one direction—defending the salutary effects of Christianity in America and defending the American experiment more generally—it is because so many have pushed hard in the other direction. From academics claiming that the Enlightenment triumphed over Christianity in the American Founding, to the 1619 Project asserting that the American Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery, to Christianity Today’s former editor insisting that America was positively not founded on Christian principles, it has become commonplace for many Americans, even religious ones, to assume that the American founding was negligibly Christian and that Christianity has had an overwhelmingly negative influence when it comes to freedom and equality in this country. Hall disagrees:
This book…focuses on the ways in which Christians have advanced liberty and equality in the American context. Contrary to many academics and popular authors, I show that Christians have regularly been motivated by their faith to create fair and just institutions, fight for political freedom, oppose slavery, and secure religious liberty for all. Of course, some Christians have appealed to the Bible and Christian theology to oppose such reforms or to justify evil practices. Americans of other faiths and no faith have also worked to advance liberty and equality for all. Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land cannot tell all of these stories; its more modest goal is to put to rest the myth that Christianity has been a regressive force with respect to positive political, legal, and societal reform in the United States. (2)
In this “modest goal,” Hall is successful. While the skeptical reader may find himself often muttering “Yeah, but…” and the academic expert may wish for a deeper dive rather than a 200-page jaunt through 250 years of history, the open-minded inquirer will find that Hall makes a scholarly and persuasive case that liberty is not just an American ideal but a Christian one, and that Christians have done much to advance the ideal in America.
In the book’s seven main chapters, Hall sets out to counter several familiar stereotypes and unfortunate myths regarding Christian influence in American history. Let me mention three examples.
First, Hall repudiates the myth that the Puritans were tyrannical theocrats. Without making seventeenth-century Calvinists out to be champions of religious liberty (as we would understand the term), Hall demonstrates that the Pilgrims and Puritans held to many democratic and republican theories of civil government, an observation that Alexis de Tocqueville also made after his famous tour of America in the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, the Puritans in America desired to create Christian social and political institutions that they believed were faithful to the Bible, but they also eschewed ecclesiastical courts over civil affairs, made church membership voluntary, and did not institute an inquisition-style group of clergy who enforced religious conformity (20). Like every other “Christian nation” in the Western world, the Puritans in America believed the magistrates should punish blasphemy, heresy, and a long list of sins of irreligion. At the same time, the American Puritans made extensive revisions to English law, adding to the rights of ordinary citizens and mitigating the abuses of power and money (19). Even when the law called for harsh penalties, the death penalty was rarely enforced. If the Puritans were not twenty-first century democrats, neither were they intolerant theocrats (33).
Second, Hall examines the controversial history surrounding the American Founders and slavery, in particular the claim of the 1619 Project that “nearly everything that has truly made American exceptional” comes out of slavery (65-66). Without defending slavery or excusing the founders who owned slaves, Hall’s scholarship provides a helpful—and accurate—contrast to the 1619 Project’s assumptions. For example, Hall argues that “no founder defended slavery as a positive good, and many key founders—like John Dickenson, James Wilson, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, George Washington, and James Madison—either manumitted their slaves, came to oppose slavery, or did both. Later in the nineteenth century, Black leaders like Lemuel Haynes and Frederick Douglas appealed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as being on the side of liberty. Although the founders famously (or infamously) had to compromise on slavery in order for the federal constitution to have any chance of passing the states, Hall reminds us that there were good reasons at the end of the eighteenth century to think slavery was on the road to extinction. Not only had the Northwest Ordinance (1787) banned slavery in its territories, but from 1790 to 1810 the rate of growth of the free Black population in the United States outpaced that of enslaved Americans (85). Slavery seemed to be on a slow, but certain, road to nowhere, and the many Christian groups and Christian arguments opposing slavery seemed to be winning the day.
A third example of an unfortunate myth can be found in the chapter on evangelical reformers in antebellum America. Because the South and the Bible Belt have become synonymous in many people’s minds today, we fail to appreciate just how relatively irreligious the South was at the start of the nineteenth century. Until the at least the 1830s, evangelical fervor was much more dominant in New England and in the Midwest than in the South, and it was that religious energy that propelled the abolitionist movement. As Hall puts it, “[The 1619 Project] account ignores the reality that by the founding era, many civic and religious leaders had come to understand that slavery was an evil that must be ended. In the nineteenth century, numerous citizens were motivated by the Christian convictions to work toward what they hoped would be its peaceful demise” (109). After all, slavery was peacefully being outlawed in the North and mid-Atlantic states and had been prohibited from expanding into the upper Midwest. Christian convictions inspired reformers to spread the same anti-slavery sentiment and legislation across the rest of the country. Likewise, Hall also notes that even though the United States government oppressed Native Americans, many white Americans actively interceded on behalf of the Cherokee Nation, including Christian missionaries and notable religious leaders.
Hall’s book is partly a scholarly investigation of the past and partly an impassioned plea for the future. Proclaim Liberty is a polemical work–not in tone (which remains careful and measured throughout), but in its direct aim to persuade the reader that Christianity is good for America and that religious freedom is good for all Americans. No doubt, one of the most surprising insights comes from Chapter Five on “The True Origin of the Separation of Church and State.” Hall argues convincingly that the notion of a strict separation between church and state only came to fore after the Civil War as Protestants worried about the growth and influence of the Catholic Church. At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Catholic population in America was only 1.8 percent. One hundred years later, Catholics accounted for roughly half of all Americans (119). Protestants feared—with some justification, given a string of nineteenth-century papal encyclicals which stood opposed to capitalism and democracy and seemed to require Roman Catholicism as the official state religion wherever possible—that without strict separationism there would be no limit to Catholic power. Americans never supported a high wall of separation until it was connected to anti-Catholicism. But by the end of the twentieth century strict separationism was being used against Protestants as well as Catholics. Now in the twenty-first century, Protestants and Catholics often work together, lest religious freedom be trampled underfoot by activist courts and the free exercise of religion gets reduced to mere private belief. Hall is right to be concerned that the liberty the founders believed in can be lost.
Hall has written an important book full of important history and corrective scholarship. As a physical book, the quality would have been improved with a better typeface, better paper, a better cover design, and something besides running footnotes (so that the total reaches 555 for the entire book). The impressive content, though, more than makes up for the lackluster design. Although the second half of the book strays a bit from the historical question “how Christianity has advanced freedom” into present-day advocacy for religious freedom, the book as a whole is thoroughly researched and effectively argued. Hall’s work is a needed reminder that even if America never was, and is not now, “Christian” in every sense of the word, we can never fully separate—nor should we want to separate—Christianity from America. The fight for liberty, not least of all religious liberty, is ongoing and should be the concern of all Americans. And for that liberty in the first place—for all Americans—we have Christians to thank.
This content was originally published on Ad Fontes