Book Plunge: The Civil War As A Theological Crisis

What do I think about Mark Noll’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters. 

The Civil War was an awful time in our nation’s history. There can be much debate about what went into it and why it happened. I personally don’t think the war was about slavery at the root, but I think slavery did play a part in it. I would say it was about the decision of the states to secede the union. It did end in freedom for the slaves and the abolition of slavery, but there was more to it than that. Still, that’s just a theory and I leave it to Civil War historians to say more about that.

There can be no doubt however that slavery is a dark mark on our nation’s history as well. What is even sadder about it is that so many people were using the Bible to defend the practice. This has led many of us to forget that the Civil War was not just a crisis of politics, but in fact it was a crisis about theology, since both sides would be able to say the exact same statements about the Bible. They’d just disagree on hermeneutics.

Knowing my interest in inerrancy, it was suggested to me that I should read this book. I’m glad I did. I found in it many of the problems that are still going on today.

Here in America, we believe greatly in the individual power of each person. To some extent, this is not problematic. However, the problem is we often carry this over to every area. We say that the average man is capable of electing his leaders for government. (Note that unique aspect of us. We are a self-governing people instead of people who have a king ruling over us.) We believe in the American Dream where with hard work and ability, you can reach the goals you have. You are to have the freedom to pursue happiness.

If all of this is true, then surely we can also do what every other man should surely be able to do! We can read the Bible and interpret it correctly! This is especially so since if this is the Word of God, then it must be that information which God would want us to know and if He wants us to know it, it should be simply to understand shouldn’t it?

Now I do think the common man to an extent can understand the Bible. You can get the main message of the Bible, such as that of salvation found in Jesus Christ, out of the Bible by a casual reading. Yet you will not get the inner intricacies of the Bible without doing real deep study and it could be the “common sense” interpretation, might be what many Americans think it is, but not what it really is. 

Of course, the fact that we were materialist did not help with this. By materialist, I do not mean philosophical materialism, but rather that we had a great love for our wealth. Slavery was a great way to increase your wealth. Invest a little bit in some slaves who you don’t have to particularly treat well and have them do all the work for you. 

Still, we’re going to be sticking with the problem of Scripture. America had been largely built on the Bible and it held a high place in American society. So what happens when there is a fundamental disagreement among the common man on how it is to interpret the most important book that exists in the American culture?

And you thought your church scuffle was bad….

As Noll also says on Location 2089 of the Kindle, foreign observers could see much clearer what was going on. If the highest authority that they had was every man’s private interpretation of Scripture, then what happens when there is a clash and there is nothing beyond that to point to? Naturally, the Catholics were willing to point out there was a problem with such a view. I, as a Protestant, would point out the need for much study and reflection in reading the leading works of scholarship. Unfortunately, too often, we’ve degenerated further into a strange idea of “That’s just your interpretation!” (Postmodernism I see as the end result of this kind of thinking.)

The great danger is that so many Protestants were saying the Bible was clear on the issue. Unfortunately, that clarity existed on both sides. One side said the Bible was clearly pro-slavery. One side says the Bible was clearly anti-slavery. Once again, we have the same problem today with people going by what is “clear.” What is clear to a modern American however is not necessarily what would be clear to an ancient Jew.

Also add in the view of providence and this makes it more difficult. Every event was interpreted as a specific “sign” from God. (I always get wary when people talk about receiving what they are sure has to be signs from God. These are even more difficult to interpret and while God allows all things to happen, there is no clear indication that any one of them is a direct message from God to the people involved.) This could in fact be something that’s a precursor to another situation today in America, interpreting events in the Middle East as signs from God and seeing Scriptural fulfillment in everything that happens.

A lot of this also came from Christianity blending itself with the Enlightenment. If the power of reason by its own is so great, then surely we can understand a book like Scripture and it must be simple. After all, if God is going to speak a message, won’t He make that message simple? Note that this is an assumption that is not defended. If anything, reading the Bible should show that the message will not be simple as even Jesus says this specifically about His parables.

It’s important to point out that the side that would have often been going the most for the clear reading of the Scripture and seen as conservative, even including the SBC, would have been the side that was pro-slavery. The other side would have been the side that brought forward the textual evidence such as looking at what slavery consisted of in the OT and the NT and what was going on at the time in the world and the marked ways slavery was different in America. Why were these arguments not given the attention they deserved? On Loc. 519, Noll says

But because those arguments did not feature intuition, republican instinct, and common sense readings of individual texts, they were much less effective in a public arena that had been so strongly shaped by intuitive, republican, and commonsensical intellectual principles.


Today, we would be told these arguments involved rationalization or “trying to deny the clear meaning of the text” and no doubt several wicked ulterior motives would be involved. Those who were opposed were the ones doing some of the hardest research and analyzing the Scriptures piece by piece instead of going with the “simple” interpretation. (Note: This simple interpretation is also preferred by too many internet atheists today.)

In fact, notice this contrast shown in Location 612.

James M. Pendleton was a hard-nosed defender of the Bible’s inerrancy as well as of Baptist distinctives, but that cast of mind did not prevent him from mounting a strong case against slavery as practiced in Kentucky at a time when possible legislation concerning slavery was being considered by a state constitutional convention.

Note this. Pendleton is seen as a strong defender of inerrancy and the Baptist faith, and yet marked out because he opposed slavery. Now none of this is said to slam Baptists as a large number of Northern Baptists did oppose slavery. Many Baptists today from the South have acknowledged this dark mark on their past and it does no good to deny it. It must be owned up to just like Crusades that went wrong or the fact that even one death in the Inquisition was too many. (Although the number of hundreds of thousands or millions is not accurate at all)

Pendleton also dealt with what was called “the Negro problem.” This meant that even if you freed the slaves, how are you to treat the black population? Are you to view them as Christian brothers and sisters? To the shame of the North, even up there that was not done that often. It would still be difficult to accept them not just as free, but as fully human. In fact, the problem of race was one that could not be answered from within the Biblical text, like many others. (Geez. Maybe extra-Biblical resources aren’t always so bad.)

What this gets down to was that too often, an attack on slavery was seen by those with the persuasion that the text was simple and clear, that this was an attack on Scripture itself and an undermining of its authority. After all, if this is what Scripture clearly teaches, then if you are going against it and bringing in ideas outside of the text, then you are going against the text of Scripture and undermining it as the final authority.

As Noll regularly points out, this was an American problem. It wasn’t that much of a problem to those who were outside of America. In America, to go against this viewpoint would make you be seen as heterodox. In the other nations, it would not. The problem then was not the Bible, but rather how Americans viewed themselves and ultimately, that came from how they viewed God should present His message. Our individualism made it possible.

Reading this book for me was a quite eye-opening event and I made several several more highlights in my Kindle that could not be recorded. What are some lessons to get?

First, we should all seek to go beyond the common sense interpretation of Scripture. We must really wrestle with Scripture and while I am not a presuppositionalist, that does not mean I do not recognize the importance of presuppositions. The assumptions that we bring to the text can affect the way that we read the text.

Second, we must also get over ourselves majorly. All of us who want to learn the Scriptures need to realize that there is no shortcut to understanding. By all means pray before Bible study, but don’t pray expecting God to just beam the answers into your head. You’re going to have to do your part to learn the answers.

Third, be extremely careful about signs. Some signs read would have pointed to the favor of slavery. Some would have pointed to the condemnation of it. It’s very difficult to judge God by current events, especially since you don’t know which ones are specifically from Him and which ones aren’t. We tend to view ourselves as really really special and therefore, God will treat us differently.

Fourth, even opponents of Scripture need to learn to not be so simplistic. When we go by what the clear meaning is, we have to ask who that is clear to. Is what is clear to a modern Westerner the same as what is clear to an ancient Jew? The Bible was written for us, but we must not think that it was written to us. It is not all about us.

Fifth, different interpretations does not mean that one is calling Scripture or inerrancy or anything like that into question. In fact, the ones who were opposed to slavery certainly did have a high view of Scripture. The fact that they weren’t using simple arguments was often seen as if it was a point to be used against them.

Anyone interested in learning the importance of good interpretation in history and the problems with a rampant individualism need to take this book and see what it has to say.

In Christ,

Nick Peters


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34 Responses to “Book Plunge: The Civil War As A Theological Crisis”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Just read Noll’s book earlier this summer and I agree that it’s a great read. One point that Noll makes that’s important is that most people, on both sides of the debate, assumed the inferiority of the “black” race, and, certainly on the pro-slavery side, the assumption that slavery as depicted in the Bible was not materially different from race-based slavery was not seriously questioned.

  2. tildeb Says:

    Nick, one major quibble with this: you say America had been largely built on the Bible and it held a high place in American society.

    This is historical hogwash if we’re speaking about the foundation of the United States of America as a political body. No god, no bible.

    If we’re speaking of some colonists then, sure; there were many established religions woven into municipal and state laws.

    If we’re speaking about those nationalists who gave rise to the independence of the colonies, then no. Deism is about as close as we can get.

    Consider that only about 4- 6% of colonists at the time of independence attended regular church gatherings and were listed congregants. The vast majority of people did not hold the kind of modern day religious views often attributed to them but simply went about their days paying necessary religious lip service when required. Their political concerns were much about being politically and economically disenfranchised that had nothing to do with religion or some personal belief in gods of a god. By far the most common religious belief was represented by the Constitutional fathers, namley, a sort of grand deism. That the Constitution is without any mention of gods or a god compared to the vartious and typical sentiments of piety found in state and local documents indicates that the country was intentionally designed to be secular and the writings of those fathers tells us that this was very purposeful to bring conflicting and contrary religious elements already locally established under a big tent of common purpose independent of religious interests. The disestablishment of state churches and the selling of its assets to the public purse is an excellent indication of the secular intentions for governance. That various presidents part of the founding wrote specifically about why churches should not be granted any tax exempt status reveals the clear thinking by law makers for purely secular governance and public policy.

    For you to suggest otherwise – that the bible held some prominence in the founding of the nation and the intention of its governance – is pure and unadulterated revisionist history. It’s not true. It’s misleading.

    The role of various religions trying to affect various governing policies, however, is accurate. Religion, as practiced in the US, has a very long history of causing passions to be inflamed. The issue of slavery is not exempt. The problem, as always, is that scripture has never been an unequivocal source of moral guidance but subject to the personal revelations of those who assume that they – surprise, surprise – have finally managed to break the code properly, so to speak. And this occurs regularly on both sides of every issue.

    • labreuer Says:

      Consider that only about 4- 6% of colonists at the time of independence attended regular church gatherings and were listed congregants.

      Would you mind citing your source for this figure?

      • tildeb Says:

        Sure: 1780 official census (interesting tidbits: population of the colonies calculated at 3 million, 3 thousand churches listed, small congregations tallied, calculated at about 4% of total).

      • labreuer Says:

        Would you please actually link to the source data or at least cite it so I can e.g. request an interlibrary loan? I found the 2010 NYT article Early Census Is Found in a New Jersey University’s Files, but no mention of religious affiliation is mentioned. The first real US Census was in 1790, and contained no questions as to religious affiliation.

      • tildeb Says:

        I’m afraid this is the only footnote I have from a transcription of a speech by Madelyn Murray O’Hair gave at a convention of American Atheists in 1972.

      • labreuer Says:

        In that case, I’m afraid it really oughtn’t be considered valid, and I don’t think you ought to be repeating it. If it is true, you’ll be able to find a source other than a random speech. I’ve spent about 20 minutes today trying to source your claim, and came up empty.

      • tildeb Says:

        This took me about 30 seconds.

      • labreuer Says:

        Thanks, and you apparently have better google-fu than I; that seems at great odds with your 4–6% number, unless you’re attempting to make that difference one between membership and routine attendance? Furthermore, it almost seems like 1780 could be the nadir between the First and Second Great Awakenings, which means that you would have cherry-picked data to best support your point, even though surely you know that ideas impact cultures over much longer time periods than 30–50 years?

      • tildeb Says:

        Yes, the estimates of congregants varies (especially when churches were ‘established’ and allowed to claim every birth to be a new congregant as well as in other states where the children of congregants were included by fiat) but no matter how much effort you put into arguing specific numbers (4-6% or 17%), you cannot argue that something that involved far less that a fifth of the population had a “high place in American society.” It simply didn’t, lab, and you pretending my research is at fault isn’t the problem here. The problem is that religiosity at the time of the revolution was much lower than today and was not in any way a central cause towards it.

      • labreuer Says:

        What reasoning are you using to determine the impact of the entire Christian belief structure upon the formation of the United States of America? Were belief in the scientific theory of evolution among US citizenry to drop to 20%, would it be true that we could then say that it isn’t playing a crucial role in science? I don’t think so, myself.

        In addition, you seem to be conveniently choosing what is probably a nadir in religious belief. Why? Why not examine the 1740s, or 1830s? Do you think those two eras have contributed little to the ideological underpinnings of America, compared to the 1780s?

      • tildeb Says:

        What reasoning are you using to determine the impact of the entire Christian belief structure upon the formation of the United States of America?

        The reasoning I’m using is respect for the actual historical record and not revisionist claptrap to present an inserted religious motivation that was not just absent but in fact disestablished from governance by strong-willed intent.

        In repeated voting, the national majority of representatives deemed such terms as Christian and Jesus Christ as having no rightful place in any official documentation. There are many examples of this.

        The god of the deists mentioned by the founding fathers was not today’s kind of evangelizing or liberalized Christianity; this god was then as it is now a reference to nature and does not suggest – except by gross misrepresentation – any notion of some major influence of today’s version of popular Christianity and its respect for biblical precepts. Quite the opposite… to anyone who actually studies this well documented history.

        These people are the very people who designed the Constitution without any reference at all, in any way, by any means, to the version of Jesus so popular today. That brute fact overshadows your wiggling and mewling notion that perhaps this intentional absence is due to my poor scholarship and research. Absolute rubbish. And you know it’s rubbish if you know the first thing about American history.

        But you continue…

        Secular values and principles unquestioningly and indisputably played the dominant role in the Constitution and this is obvious to anyone who can read.

        You can read. So can Nick. Neither of you has any excuse.

        But let’s go past the Constitution itself and do what students are taught to do in history: compare and contrast.

        When one compares this document to others from the State level, one immediately understands just how radical, just how revolutionary, this departure was. It’s not trivial difference but central to the document’s purpose, namely, to place authority of governance directly with those who are to be governed. This placement of authority is antithetical to the grovelling submission to god for whatever crumbs of governance believers think we earn from this Dear Leader by our piousness.

        God plays no part.

        None. At all.

        The founders disestablished any and all religious claims to political authority. That’s the historical fact believers today seem to be unable to wrap their little heads around… busy as they are pretending totalitarian states that commit crimes against humanity best represent what secular governance means. That is why the trope is utter rubbish; it is the Constitution of the United States of America that best represents secularism.

        Today’s call for more religious interference in governance in the United States is not just unpatriotic to the intention, principles, and values espoused by the Constitution but is contrary to its articles that intentionally keeps a wall of separation between them to stop any federal establishment of any religious allegiances. (hence, the reason for the establishment clause).

        But far too many gullible believers don’t want to accept this separation as historically justifiable… in spite of overwhelming evidence in its favour; instead, we get those unwilling to support the Constitution and defend it from enemies foreign and domestic trying to revise history by misrepresenting it to suggest that there really was a Christianized and biblical intention guiding the founders.

        This isn’t just wrong; it demonstrates a motivation by these misguided and historically disrespectful revisionists to craete a fictional narrative to serve some other master than what’s true.

        And it annoys me to no end that people willingly and eagerly revise history to play this stupid replacement game and pretend the Christian version has some historical validity rather than the blatant substitution of a fairytale it is. At the very least, such an activity is not just academically fraudulent; it’s unquestionably UNpatriotic.

      • tildeb Says:

        Again, lab, you seem intent on missing my point: the country as a nation was in no way ‘founded’ on biblical principles or held a ‘high place’ in its documents. This is Nick’s point and it is inaccurate. Yes, you can quibble all you want about the specific numbers but you do so not to test Nick’s claim to find out if it is scholarly history (as you seem to be interested in finding out if I make a claim but waving away the same requirement of Nick) or apologetic revisionism in action. I suspect you simply try to bury the point I’ve raised in the quibble rather than address the main.

        The claim Nick makes is not true. Period. In fact, all the evidence points to the brute fact that the founders intentionally separated any religiosity from governance. (Jesus Christ was a term not just unwanted but vetoed when offered in official documents, bills, and other legislative policies). This evidence begins with the language and ends with the private letters of its founders revealing the vast majority were very much dedicated to eliminating religious privilege from the public domain. What has happened since is undoubtedly a usurpation of the principle required for religious freedom (and its establishment in the public domain) and most egregiously is the tax exempt status that operates diametrically opposed to these founding principles. The US IS the first secular state and its early days should be used as an example of politically expressed secularism.

      • labreuer Says:

        I suspect you simply try to bury the point I’ve raised in the quibble rather than address the main.

        Nope, it was an investigation into how well you verify your truth-claims and it was very enlightening to see the results.

        The claim Nick makes is not true. Period.

        I would have to ask him what he means by “‘founded’ on biblical principles”. Based on my reading of scholars, including books like Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs, David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and Peter Berger’s A Far Glory, Christian thought has had a profound impact on Western civilization. You seem to have taken Nick to mean theocracy, or something like that; I find this implausible.

      • tildeb Says:

        Nope, it was an investigation into how well you verify your truth-claims.

        Rubbish, lab. You hold me to a different standard than you do Nick so that you can avoid dealing with the main points I raise in criticisms of them. It’s a tactic you use over and over and over again and couldn’t care less about the results of the quibbles you raise.

      • labreuer Says:

        You hold me to a different standard than you do Nick

        Do I? This seems to presuppose that qui tacet consentire videtur: silence gives consent. That would be a very bad presupposition. I merely voice my disagreements with Nick or request clarifications when my interest is piqued. That seems to be the function of blog comments, no?

  3. J.W. Wartick Says:

    Great, there goes one of my ideas for my PhD thesis…. but at least I know this book exists now. It’s a topic I explored a bit in my undergraduate studies, culminating in an argument that the Civil War was theological. Now I need to read this book!

  4. apologianick Says:

    American history of this sort is not my strong point. I read the book mainly for the relation to inerrancy. However, I did contact someone who does see it as a strong point. For some reason, he was not able to post here successfully, so he sent me what he wanted to say. If some want to argue that point, they can bring it over to his blog.

    “Tildeb, Nick invited me to be on his show a few months ago to discuss this very topic. You may want to listen to that podcast at:

    In regards to your claims about the number of Christians in America at the time of the revolution, let me point out that relying on church membership records the way that Finke and Sharp do in their book is very problematical. From what I read, Finke and Stark did not devote any time to explaining the fact that different denominations use different criteria to determine church membership. For example, the Baptist church of that time period did not allow anyone to become a member unless they had been baptized by immersion as an adult. Hence the name Baptists. On the other hand, the Anglican church counted anyone who had been sprinkled as an infant in their church as a member, and the other churches all fell somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. Given this wide range of methodology, there is no way to accurately calculate church membership in Revolutionary America which is why you have estimates ranging from the 4-6% that you present to the 75-80% claimed by the Library of Congress (

    Now, I was recently asked to help a friend prepare for a public debate against someone who shares your view of America’s founding, and I think that you may be able to benefit from the letter that I wrote back in response. You can read it on my website at: The information available there should be sufficient to prove to you that America was not “the first secular state.” That particular honor would be much more fittingly applied to the nation of France during the period of the French Revolution. The French specifically excluded religion in general and Christianity in particular from their society, and it very quickly led to the Reign of Terror. Their example was followed by nearly all of the modern secular states with their Five Year Plans and Great Purges.

    The American founders (with the exception of Jefferson until he learned of the Reign of Terror) strongly rejected the secular approach taken by the French. Alexander Hamilton, for example, wrote a lengthy critique of the French Revolution, an excerpt of which is available at:”

    • tildeb Says:

      I have found it rather telling that many of today’s historical revisionists (that attempt to demonstrate the supposed Christian intentions behind the founding of the US republic) first falsely equate the notion of secularism with atheism and then try to argue that because many of the founding fathers were not atheists – and/or had a certain tolerance/support/fondness/sympathy/belief for the role of religion in developing morality and character – the Constitution cannot be secular.

      This argument doesn’t work. It is a misguided attempt to misrepresent history because the establishment of a secular state doesn’t mean the establishment of an atheist state; it simply means what the what the term ‘secularism’ itself means, namely, “a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.” (OED)

      Clearly and unequivocally, the US Constitution is based on exactly this dual principle. Atheism is not a factor (whereas it is in the French revolution). That is why the US is a secular state… no matter how many personal quotes of religious tolerance/support/fondness/sympathy/belief any of the founders may also have had that revisionists attempt to bring to surface to support their argument. It’s the wrong argument. And the compelling evidence for this brute fact of secular intent is the Constitution itself that clearly and unequivocally disestablishes religion from having any recognized authority or government support whatsoever in the public domain.

      Many believers may not like this fact but it stands on its own merit… whether raised by an atheist or a believer. And the evidence is the Constitution wholly and fully and completely a document of secular principle upon which all the organs of the US government stand.

      • apologianick Says:

        If you’re sure that argument works, you’re free to take it to Bill and challenge the evidence he gave.

        If not, well I see no reason to take your claim seriously.

      • tildeb Says:

        Nick, it’s not ‘my’ argument: go read the Constitution and fell free to find any reference whatsoever to Christianity or Jesus Christ as founding principles. It’ ain’t there. What is there is a system best summed up by Lincoln, namely government of the people, by the people, for the people. God – and any authority supposedly derived thereof – is simply not a factor or consideration. At all.

        The first amendment demonstrates its secular intent, namely, the establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) and the exercise clause (“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”).

        Now compare this with the very definition of secularism, namely, the first principle of separation of church and state (“the strict separation of the state from religious institutions”) and equality (“that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law”).

        They mesh seamlessly.

        Nowhere in either the Constitution or the definition of secularism is there any conflating notion that this means the US is an atheist state (it’s supposed to be neutral!) or that secularism is synonymous with atheism. That is a fiction created entirely by believers trying to misrepresent secularism (which is about political principled rights residing with the governed) in order to condemn and vilify atheism (which is about non belief in gods or a god). Because believers stupidly conflate secularism with atheism demonstrates the confusion they bring into the political arena that they then try to impose their religious beliefs to justify the curtailment of legal rights to privilege religion. New Atheists recognize this privilege and criticize it because it’s anti-secular, which is attack on all of our rights and freedoms – both those who are religious and those who are not!

        This is the ongoing battle fought between secularists and the religious on so many fronts and why every time some governmental agent and/or official confused about the proper exercise of public governance with which s/he has been endowed tries to ‘help’ religion gain some public power or privilege they meet such dedicated opposition. The opposition is almost always misrepresented to be not the patriotic duty of every citizen religious or not but by those of questionable moral character who want to exercise hatred towards religion or god or Jesus Christ. Again, this is a fiction created by the religious but it pollutes the understanding needed to recognize why anti-secular advocacy harms us all. And this harm begins with creating the fiction that the US is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles.

      • apologianick Says:

        Not going to challenge Bill I see. Okay.

        Did someone say something?

      • tildeb Says:

        By all means use whatever Bill offers to counter my criticism of your assertion. But you did make it. Take ownership of it.

        I’ve done my part to demonstrate that it’s a fiction and explained why. I have no need to go elsewhere. You do have a need to learn more about it if you cannot handle my criticism. Seeking allies to avoid my criticism means you should at the very least stop making the assertion as if you think it’s true when you can’t (or are unwilling to) defend it.

      • apologianick Says:

        Actually, I’m talking about Mark Noll’s argument, but let’s look at the claim.

        The Constitution does not mention God or Jesus.

        So what? Why should it? They weren’t establishing a theocracy over here. That does not mean they did not believe Christian principles were the foundation of a good society and that they should be followed.

        Still, I find it interesting that Bill presented you with contrary evidence and you ignore it and then complain because you think others are ignoring your claims.

      • tildeb Says:

        Nick, you say in this latest comment That does not mean they did not believe Christian principles were the foundation of a good society and that they should be followed.

        What I’m saying is that these personal preferences simply don’t factor into the claim you make in your OP that it was Christian principles that were to be the foundation for the new country… unless they were expressed in the Constitution. These Christian principles were not. In fact, my evidence is that such principles were studiously avoided!

        That lack of expression in the founding document seals the deal regarding the question whether or not the personal beliefs of the founders mattered towards the intent of the country’s foundation. What mattered were the principles not of Christianity which you mistakenly believe but of secularism… which as I’ve shown were clearly enunciated in the document.

        What Bill offered was not contrary evidence to this point I make that the founding documents were of secular and not religious principles but a long list of personal beliefs of some of the founders. I am not disputing this. They simply don’t matter regarding your claim… no matter how long the list might be. I’m not ignoring him at all; I’m explaining why it’s the wrong approach to verifying whether or not your claim – that America had been largely built on the Bible and it held a high place in American society – is valid. As far as the Constitution of the United States of America is concerned and its role to define the principles for the governing of the country, your claim is invalid. The US has been built on secular – and definitely NOT religious – principles. What you’re offering is revised history to favour your religious beliefs and not a reflection of what is historically accurate.

      • apologianick Says:

        It wouldn’t show up in the Constitution because this was not to be a Theocracy. America was seen as a Christian nation, but the government was not the nation and there wasn’t going to be any sort of claim that one needed to be a Christian to be a citizen for instance. The principles that were behind it such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness came from the Christian ethic and of course, there is a reference to the creator as well in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution being about how the government was to be run would not mention the other aspects if it was not to be a theocracy.

      • tildeb Says:

        The principles that were behind it such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness came from the Christian ethic…

        Religious belief in some divine authority bestowing undeserved gifts on people – like life and liberty – is not just unnecessary for these principles to have merit on their own but actually contrary to them (such as one example of the divine right of Kings by religious fiat). You don’t own your life if it something is granted absolute power to give or take it away by the whim of some god. You don’t own your liberty if you must first submit to god’s purpose imposed on it. No, the Christian ethic of submission and servitude is hardly the ground from which secularism and its principles arise. It is from the Enlightenment thinking that such reasoned principles are given voice by merit.

        I think a very strong case can be made that the Constitution is a product not of Christian ethics but of the Enlightenment that challenged this long-standing ethos. In it we find an expression of legal protections expanded to cover all individuals probably inspired by the example of the Magna Carta. We can read about Hobbe’s and Rousseau’s contract theory, and consider Locke’s powerful argument about consent of the governed to find the root works that guided the Constitution;s crafting. These principles are very nicely summed up by life, liberty, and the enlightenment idea of ‘happiness’ without any – and I mean any – biblical or religious precepts required. The assertion that they come from Christian ethics is very strange considering they did not emerge, say, a millennium-and-a-half earlier but only after this ‘ethic’ was directly challenged by serious thinkers and writers.

      • labreuer Says:

        It is from the Enlightenment thinking that such reasoned principles are given voice by merit.

        There is no such merit; see UCSD law prof Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, which I found via NYT op ed Are There Secular Reasons?. From his book:

        No one expects that anything called “reason” will dispel such pluralism by leading people to converge on a unified truth—certainly not about ultimate or cosmic matters such as “the nature of the universe” or “the end and the object of life.” Indeed, unity on such matters could be achieved only by state coercion: Rawls calls this the “fact of oppression.”[36] So a central function of “public reason” today is precisely to keep such matters out of public deliberation (subject to various qualifications and exceptions that Rawls conceded as his thinking developed). And citizens practice Rawlsian public reason when they refrain from invoking or acting on their “comprehensive doctrines”—that is, their deepest convictions about what is really true—and consent to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible “overlapping consensus“.[Political Liberalism, 133-172, 223-227] (14–15)

        Your reasoning is just utterly flawed; you are like Hume, who thought that (a) he could do without all that ‘religious’ morality, and (b) that the morality he accepted was universally true. He was wrong: post-modernism has finally shown us that reason cannot ground claims such as:

        These principles are very nicely summed up by life, liberty, and the enlightenment idea of ‘happiness’ without any – and I mean any – biblical or religious precepts required.

        Go for it: try to ground these ideas. Try to show they are anything other than what you want to be true, which you also want others to want to be true, such that if enough people want them to be true, these ideas will get turned into social facts.

        The assertion that they come from Christian ethics is very strange considering they did not emerge, say, a millennium-and-a-half earlier but only after this ‘ethic’ was directly challenged by serious thinkers and writers.

        How rigorously have you traced the ideas which show up in the US Constitution? Ideas don’t just come out of nowhere, which is what you find out when you read scholarly works like Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

      • tildeb Says:

        None of this has anything to do with what I said.

        The link The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is about the quality of public discourse about secular issues that the author thinks is undergoing a downward slide. I don’t disagree with the thesis. Consider, for example, how your commentary tends to divert away from the OP’s original discourse (post and criticism) and slide inexorably into the literary world of carefully (and sometimes not so carefully selected) biased quips.

        The second link Are There Secular Reasons? conflates secular discourse about ethics to be empty because the op-ed writer has decided that it must use either only empiricism (and purely scientifically approved naturalistic language, of course) or allow religious justifications into any discourse (as if that helps). It’s bone-numbingly stupid because it is founded on a false dichotomy.

        Again, what has this to do with the secular principles found in the Constitution?

        Absolutely nothing.

        Your contribution here is to address my point that principles can be grounded by reasoned merit rather than have to include some version of legitimacy by the supposed approval of some divine agency of Oogity Boogity. You want to argue this point.

        Go figure.

        But in order for me to continue to suggest we can use reasoned merit rather the long-sought-after-but-never-quite-found legitimacy of divinely sanctioned language for ethical considerations for justifying these secular principles by reason (notice the bait and switch you’ve used?), you’ve once again advised me to first bone up on your suggested reading list.

        Hence, evidence for the first link’s thesis.

      • labreuer Says:

        None of this has anything to do with what I said.

        Your whole argument is predicated upon the US Constitution not being grounded in principles causally produced by Christianity (it is irrelevant if they could have been caused in another way) in any appreciable way.

        The link The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is about the quality of public discourse about secular issues that the author thinks is undergoing a downward slide.

        This is merely part of the book; I actually own it and have read over half of it. The book is about whether there is such a thing as secular grounding of principles. The quotation I provided argues that there is no such grounding, and that John Rawls’ overlapping consensus—absolutely required for secular governance—is not guaranteed to exist. It simply isn’t. This is problematic, for you.

        It’s bone-numbingly stupid because it is founded on a false dichotomy.

        That isn’t an argument. Feel free to make one if you’d like. For example, establish what would ground secular principles that does not fall into the natural kind of ‘religion’.

        reasoned merit

        What is “reasoned merit”? What is the most comprehensive development of this idea of which you know? I point you once again to my quotation from The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Reason, you see, needs to start from axioms. The axioms one uses form one’s “comprehensive doctrine”. And yet, if comprehensive doctrines are not allowed into secular discourse, how do you use reason? The only possible answer is that you hope that other folks agree sufficiently with your own axioms. This is not guaranteed to happen.

      • apologianick Says:

        If you wish to make the case, then by all means make it, but even the secularists did not live in a vacuum. If you want to know why the ideas take a long time to fully reach fruition, why should that be a surprise. It’s not as if the resurrection happened and then immediately there’s the Nicene Creed. Ideas develop much the same way as sciences develop. Foundations are laid and then built on.

        Much of the Constitution is rooted in Natural Law theory which goes back to the medieval period. It is more religiously neutral in that it doesn’t try to uphold any one religious system, but at the same time it allows for freedom for all.

  5. edwardtbabinski Says:

    Hi Nick, Please allow me add a quotation from The Oxford Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible, ed. by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001)

    “In the United States disputes over slavery brought Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists to schism by 1845, and encouraged the fratricidal Civil War that finally resolved that crisis. One of the chief ironies of the conflict over slavery was the confrontation of America’s largest Protestant denominations with the hitherto unthinkable idea that the Bible could be divided against itself. But divided it had been by intractable theological, political, and economic forces. Never again would the Bible completely recover its traditional authority in American culture.”

    Stephen A. Marini, “Slavery and the Bible,” The Oxford Guide to Ideas & Issues of the Bible, ed. by Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press, 2001)

    I have amassed quite a few quotations related to the question of Christianity and slavery:

    More are located inside this online piece, in the section titled, The Civil War, Slavery and the Bible


    South Carolina, the first state to secede, felt compelled to publish the reasons for its secession that can be read here: Funny thing is, it boils down to how those mean Northern states are ignoring the US Constitution by not returning all those run-away slaves.

    Some conservatives like Michelle Bachmann and perhaps some other Republicans continue to propose that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. According to them everybody in the South, white and black, slave and slave owner, was just as happy as pie in the big Christian paradise. But that does not agree with the reality that there was such a problem with slaves risking their lives fleeing to the North (and not being promptly returned to their owners by those mean Northerners) that South Carolina felt compelled to secede from the United States of America.

  6. Is Bill Maher Right on Religion? | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] Shermer again assumes his mindset of Paul as if Paul was happy with women being seen as property. In 1 Cor. 7, Paul tells slaves that if they can get their freedom, go for it. Paul nowhere says a woman must put up with abuse and be treated as property. But let’s look and use slavery as an example. No one saw any problem with slavery until the time of the Civil War? (And it would be recommended that Shermer read Noll’s The Civil War As A Theological Crisis which I have also reviewed. […]

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