The most uneducated but wildly popular critique of Christianity in America — especially on social media — is that Christianity has been a bastion of oppression and intolerance. So much so that the advancements made in liberty and equality over the centuries have come only when America and American leaders have rejected Christianity. In his new book Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land, historian Mark David Hall offers a concise corrective to this inaccurate and often ignorant hot-take and popular narrative.
Hatred of Christianity is one of the pillars of the current anti-American ideology that permeates universities and the governing spirit of our ruling elite. Mockery of Christians, especially evangelicals, is also one of the core tenets of progressive culture. This hostility and mockery are unwarranted. Far from being agents of oppression and anti-intellectualism, Hall highlights how Christians have been the bedrock of social activism advancing liberty and equality, as well as promoting education reform, increasing literacy, and publishing newspapers and magazines.
We are all familiar with the asinine proclamations of America as a secular country, that progress, liberty, and equality are atheist ideals, and that committed Christians are the greatest threat to America’s future. Yet, as Hall forcefully rebuts, “it is simply false to claim that liberty and equality have been advanced primarily when America’s leaders embrace progressive manifestations of religion or reject faith altogether.”
Looking at the Puritans, the American Revolution, evangelical social reform prior to the Civil War, and contemporary debates over religious liberty, Hall reveals what used to be well-known: Christianity has been the heart of true social progress and explosive advancements in human liberty, equality, and democratic government.
Puritans and Foundations of Liberty
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, Daniel Webster, one of the most important senators the United States ever had, lauded the Pilgrims and Puritans as champions of the liberty that our “civil and religious liberty” grew from. Today, however, it is common to imagine Puritans as petty tyrants, intolerant theocrats, and bah humbug killjoys.
When I was a student at Yale taking classes on American Puritanism, our professor went to great lengths to de-indoctrinate us of the popular stereotypes of the Puritans. The Puritans were among the most educated people at the time, established our most venerable institutions of higher education, promoted the advancement and discoveries of Enlightenment science, vigorously advocated for public literacy, and enjoyed a good laugh, beer, and sex.
The real history of the Puritans that I learned at Yale is covered again by Hall in his opening chapter deconstructing the lies of secularists and anti-Christian writers and hacktivists portraying the Puritans in a dark and inaccurate light. The Puritans, our author reminds us, “valued natural rights, government by the consent of the governed, and limited government; they were convinced that citizens have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to resist tyrannical government.” When traveling through the lands the Puritans helped to build in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, “Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine, but corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.”
As historians and scholars of Puritanism have long asserted, the democratic ethos of congregationalist church politics helped develop the local customs of self-government in New England that would form the basis for “Democracy in America,” as Tocqueville famously put it. But what about the banishment of certain Baptist dissenters and the Salem witch trials, the critic asks? These events did happen, but they are drastically overblown by contemporary critics.
The banishment of a handful of religious dissenters in Massachusetts was only after these rabble-rousing individuals repeatedly, and deliberately, returned to cause trouble and disturb the peace. Also, Hall reminds us, when compared to Europe, where more than 100,000 men and women were prosecuted as witches and half sentenced to death, only 272 individuals in America were ever charged with witchcraft. The Salem witch trials, which happened in 1692, marked the last execution of a witch in North America. In Europe, witches were still executed as late as 1782.
Completing his overview of the Puritans, Hall writes that the Puritans “created political institutions that were more democratic than any the world had ever seen, and they strictly limited civil leaders by law.”
Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God
Another one of the popular putdowns of Christianity by its critics (and even some Christians) is that Christianity doesn’t permit rebellion to tyrannical government but supports tyrannical government. In a gross and deeply literalist reading of the Apostle Paul in Romans (somewhat ironic all things considered), these critics assert that because a single passage in the New Testament supposedly teaches obedience to government, which is ordained by God, the American revolutionary patriots rejected Christian teachings and had to utilize secular and Enlightenment arguments to advance the cause of liberty during the American Revolution.
Again, this is patently false, as any decently educated person knows. Kody Cooper and Justin Dyer recently published a superb book, The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics, addressing this myth in detail. Hall, too, quickly covers the problems of this critique. Highlighting Calvinist theological history (something that these critics have no knowledge of, despite their claims of educated intelligence), covering important names known to students of theology, such as John Ponet, John Knox, George Buchanan, Samuel Rutherford, and even John Cotton (grandfather of Cotton Mather), Hall shows that Christian theological history had come to see rebellion to tyrants as obedience to God and Scripture.
Moreover, most of the popular and patriotic arguments for revolution were not conversant with theorists such as John Locke but with Scripture. The Old Testament, especially, was appealed to by the patriotic clergy in favor of revolution. Christians, far from submitting to tyranny, offered complex theological arguments against tyranny and, therefore, helped formulate a political theology of liberty and equality in the process.
Evangelicals Against Oppression
Perhaps the most common trope that our contemporary anti-Christian elite culture pushes is the tyrannical and ignorant evangelical Christian. This, too, is a stereotype with little basis in history. In fact, many of our best institutions of higher learning were founded by evangelical Christians even if they have since departed from that faith that gave birth to them (Harvard, Yale, and Oberlin, to name a few). The first opponents of slavery and proponents of abolition were the heirs of the Puritans, such as the Rev. Samuel Sewall, who published the first anti-slavery writing in 1700.
Motivated by a vigorous religious faith, the Second Great Awakening was the fire that fueled anti-slavery and abolitionist politics in antebellum America. Men and women of Methodist, Baptist, and congregationalist (Puritan) backgrounds were oftentimes the leading champions of liberty and equality for African-Americans and indigenous Americans. As Hall writes, it was American evangelicals, and especially evangelical women, who most actively “oppos[ed] the evils of slavery and Indian removal.”
During the antebellum years, American evangelicals sought to “work together to help end social evils” and established “thousands of organizations aimed at alleviating suffering and reforming society.” Evangelicals were on the front lines of creating new educational institutions, promoting education reforms to advance public literacy, and establishing newspapers as a means of confronting social evils. Furthermore, Evangelicalism, originally a religious minority grouping, was deeply indebted to religious liberty as the means for its social growth and prominence.
This spirit of religious social reform for liberty led to the contemporary defense of religious liberty as the bedrock on which all liberty and equality before the law stands: “Christian legal organizations have been among the best advocates for religious liberty for all, including citizens who embrace non-Christian faiths,” Hall writes.
Why Christianity Matters to America
In Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land, Hall gives us yet another triumphant and important book to correct the polemical, inaccurate, and deeply misleading public presentation of the relationship between Christianity and American politics. Far from the evil bogeyman and religion of oppression that ungrateful critics claim, Christianity has been a positive force for good and the growth of liberty and equality. In fact, America has been best when it has reached into the heart of Christianity for its social reforms and advancement of liberty and equality rather than rejecting Christianity.