Did America Have a Christian Founding?
Previously published by The Heritage Foundation, June 2011, Lecture #1186
Did America have a Christian Founding? This disputed question, far from being only of historical interest, has important implications for how we conceive of the role of religion in the American republic. Mark David Hall begins by considering two popular answers to the query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both of which distort the Founders’ views. After showing that Christian ideas were one of the important intellectual influences on the Founders, he discusses three major areas of agreement with respect to religious liberty and church–state relations at the time of the Founding: Religious liberty is a right and must be protected; the national government should not create an established church, and states should have them only if they encourage and assist Christianity; and religion belongs in the public square. In short, while America did not have a Christian Founding in the sense of creating a theocracy, its Founding was deeply shaped by Christian moral truths. More important, it created a regime that was hospitable to Christians, but also to practitioners of other religions.
The role of religion in the American republic has been a source of controversy since the nation’s inception. Debates are particularly fierce when they concern religious liberty and the proper relationship between church and state. Arguments on these questions are often framed in the light of the Founders’ intentions, but unfortunately, their views are often distorted.
Did America have a Christian Founding? Two popular answers to this query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both distort the Founders’ views. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary political and legal controversies.