Religion & Liberty Online

Is Christianity Special?

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A new book seeks to counter the trend in academia and pop literature to depict American history as a relentless trampling of human rights by an intolerant Christianity. But does the counteroffensive prove America’s essentially Christian—and liberal in the best sense—character?

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Mark David Hall’s Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans defends the role of Christianity in American history against critics who either deny its influence or assert that its influence was pernicious (e.g., the 1619 Project and Jemar Tisby). Hall summarizes his critics to say that “liberty and equality have been advanced primarily when America’s leaders embrace progressive manifestations of religion or reject faith altogether.” Hall acknowledges that American Christians have sometimes acted in pernicious ways but argues that their faith has nevertheless been an essential force for moral progress. In this respect, Hall’s efforts resemble those of Tom Holland and Rodney Stark.

Hall’s book is a combination of legal argument and history and refutes several tenacious and popular myths—for example, that Puritans were joyless anti-democratic theocrats, American independence was enabled by secular Enlightenment principles, Christianity enabled and preserved slavery, and the “separation of Church and State” is consistent with the Founding and good governance. Hall builds on this last point to critique recent church/state jurisprudence and to suggest a way forward on religious liberty.

Hall’s first chapter does fine work rejecting the alleged “theocratic” and harsh character of colonial New England. He demonstrates how widespread literacy and congregational government advanced republicanism, relatively equitable and merciful criminal justice, and protection of rights and liberties. Application of both Old and New Testaments encouraged due process, transparent legal codes, distrust of unchecked authority, and a right to disobedience. Hall also gleans from contemporary scholarship evidence that the persecution of Quakers and the witch panic in New England were minor one-offs (a “horrific fluke” in Michael Winship’s words), especially relative to persecution and prosecution across the Atlantic.

But what about rights and liberties of conscience? Puritans fled one religious establishment in Great Britain only to create their own. Turning his attention from New England toward other (non-Puritan) colonies, Hall emphasizes that religious establishments existed in every colony except Rhode Island. In addition, extensive laws governed public and private conduct. However, and this cannot be said enough, the state never presumed to force religious belief; only public expression of religion was regulated. At one point in his argument, Hall promises to demonstrate how colonial religious toleration blossomed into the “free exercise of religion,” but his defense of religious liberty in later chapters is not connected back to colonial precedent. Hall should have more thoroughly interrogated colonial debates about the conscience.

Hall then defends the War for Independence against critics who argue that not only was it secular in character but also unbiblical and contrary to Christian teaching. He offers a brief survey of Protestant resistance theory by both “lesser magistrates” (civil authorities opposing other authorities) and individuals, alludes to English and colonial American precedents before 1775, and applies just war theory. Like Gary Steward’s extensive study of religion in the Revolution, Hall’s defense relies almost entirely on Reformed sources (which he asserts are summarized by John Locke’s Second Treatise) and repeats Sydney Ahlstrom’s claim that Reformed theology was the majority religious tradition in early America. Hall acknowledges that Christian Loyalists did not agree with the applicability of these arguments and that Patriots may have been given to conspiracy theories, but emphasizes that it is the perception of early Americans that matters, not the hindsight of scholars.

When Hall turns to slavery, his apologetic becomes a little murkier. As with religious persecution, part of his defense is that slavery was prevalent (and still is). In other words, America and America’s slaves were relatively better than Christianity would have been without it. That’s objectively true. But to make the point, Hall should have quoted David Brion Davis, the dean of abolition historians, who argued that “it was in the Age of the Enlightenment that the African slave trade and the West Indian plantation enjoyed their golden years.” Puritans confined lawful slavery to biblical standards. Quakers were the first abolitionists. Both groups seeded moral condemnations of slavery. And “virtually no founder,” Hall summarizes, “defended slavery as a positive good and many were working actively to abolish it.” The Founders did indeed take a more pragmatic or prudent approach, beginning nationally in 1787, and relied on moral enlightenment in the several states. Hall argues that it was better for slaves to live in a country increasingly divided on the morality of slavery than to live in a separate hypothetical country of Southern states committed to it, but that overlooks the fact that over 100 antislavery societies existed in the South by the mid-1820s. And though Hall gleans from other scholars a provocative defense of Thomas Jefferson’s many labors to oppose slavery, Jefferson’s prominence makes his defense of Christianity reliant on the relatively progressive manifestations of it that he opposes with this apologetic.

Hall extends his consideration of slavery to antebellum evangelicals, who took up opposition to Indian relocation as well. On the one hand, Hall reattends to his thesis by focusing on Catharine Beecher, who called out American abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, as neither peaceful nor Christian because of their “party spirit, denunciation, recrimination, and angry passions,” making them inferior to British abolitionists. But it again becomes unclear whom he is defending. At the end of this chapter, Hall notes that both the House and Supreme Court opposed President Jackson’s Indian policy, but adds that “many white Americans actively interceded on behalf of the Cherokee Nation.” These were presumably white Christians.

Hall’s argument turns substantially beginning in chapter 5 when he blunts his thesis that Christianity advanced “freedom and equality for all Americans,” yet he also makes the book more effective for our current culture wars—no doubt one of Hall’s goals as well. Hall contends that what we now call “separation of church and state” is not only inconsistent with centuries of precedent but it also began as an internecine conflict initiated by nativist Protestants against Catholic immigrants in the late 19th century. Protestant tactics, including prohibitions on public funding for private schools, then “morphed into a tool to be wielded against all religious citizens.” Subsequent anti-religious jurisprudence (in Everson,Engel, etc.) even coexisted alongside anti-Catholic polemics in the 1940s and 1950s.

Increasingly indiscriminate attacks by the Supreme Court on the rights of all Christians, however, not just Catholics, together with subsequent culture war decisions (esp. Roe) would bind Protestants and Roman Catholics together in common causes beginning in the 1960s. This alliance used to include religious progressives like Bill Clinton (as evidenced by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act), but conservatives now stand alone to defend the rights of a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman, for example. By the time of the Obama administration or the 2016 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, progressives decreed that religious freedom is only freedom to support abortion and gender ideology. Contra such nonsense, Hall demonstrates that historical precedent enables public religious expression, including displays of the Ten Commandments and crosses—as well as prayer. Against the more recent complaint of “dignitary harm” by Christians, Hall notes that burning flags or protesting at veterans’ funerals surely causes harm but are protected nevertheless.

Hall’s arguments will prove helpful for those overwhelmed by the secular zeitgeist, but is it enough simply to be on the defensive? Hall often asserts that how courts should rule on religious expression is determined by how they have ruled. But while it is reasonable to defend imposition of “building codes, fire codes, criminal laws, and pandemic regulations that are neutral and generally applicable,” what if nondiscrimination laws or speech codes are legislated so as to be equally “neutral and generally applicable”? Just as nativist Protestants knew whom they were targeting, don’t today’s progressives know whom their targets are, too? Especially in later chapters, Hall drifts from a defense of America’s Christian past and Christian religious expression to a defense of every kind of religious expression. But is all religious expression equally supportive of freedom and equality?

On this question of Christianity and liberalism, Hall sometimes leans toward a particularly Protestant American character, though his casting of democratic government and theological egalitarianism in the 17th century make them seem more popular with Protestants than they actually were. At one point he calls Mennonites “followers of Huldrych Zwingli,” but the only place Zwingli would have led them is to their execution. Was America sufficiently free and equal under a Protestant regime enforcing “blue laws” (which Hall notes have never been found unconstitutional) and prosecuting polygamy, obscenity, and blasphemy? Hall glosses over why Protestants could sideline Catholic parochial schools and strengthen the public school monopoly: they essentially owned the public schools then and mandated religious expression in them. So why did Protestant elites ultimately abandon the schools and protection of religious rights generally? Such questions disrupt any simple relationship of Christianity to liberalism and oblige a more robust consideration of the issues Hall raises.

Some contemporary critics of protections for religious individuals and institutions have argued that “religion isn’t special.” Has Hall adequately demonstrated, especially to the generation about to take power, that it is? Hall is certainly an articulate and careful apologist, but it is questionable whether Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land can defend liberalism against its progressive or post-liberal opponents. Peevish progressives are not given enough reason to value the Church if Christians were only relatively better than their contemporaries. Faithful, piqued post-liberals might not be given enough reason why freedom and equality are worth advancing for Christian reasons.

Glenn Moots

Glenn A. Moots is professor of political science and philosophy at Northwood University and serves as a research fellow at the McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship there. He is also the author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology and coedited, with Phillip Hamilton, Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution.