Journal Watch: Faith and the American Founding

Though connoisseurs of the culture war appreciate fresh servings of the religion-versus-science staple, they may have an even greater craving for simplistic pronouncements about America's founding generation.

Thankfully, scholars have produced outstanding work in recent years on the question of early American intentions about the relationship between religion and politics. Philip Hamburger's masterful Separation of Church and State leads the way. Daniel Dreisbach, Steven D. Smith, Patricia Bonomi, Michael Novak, and many others have also contributed to the public understanding of the issue.

Christopher S. Grenda, writing in the Journal of Law and Religion (volume XXII, number 2), eschews propaganda. Grenda's article, "Religious Culture & Natural Rights: Understanding the 'Paradox' of Early America," explains that there was not necessarily a dichotomy between secular Lockean liberal thinking and devout Christianity on the matter of established churches.

He demonstrates the organic union of the two schools of thought and the complexity of early American thinking about church-state separation with two examples—British Americans Jonathan Dickinson of New Jersey and Elisha Williams of Connecticut. They combined Lockean and Christian worldviews in their cases against the American legal establishment. Further on, Grenda posits human degeneracy as an argument against state-established churches—a significant and underexplored line of thought.

Grenda's conclusion goes straight to the heart of the matter: We cannot understand the founding of America if we think of Christianity as some anti-rational appendage that rode along with Enlightenment thinking. Neither can we satisfy ourselves with pointing to this founder or that one and claiming that the beliefs of Jefferson, Madison, or Henry carried the day. The reality is that we have a "complex cultural inheritance" to explore.

Book Report: Giving the Pagans Their Due

Michael Farris founded Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, with a strong classical liberal arts core. According to Hannah Rosin's recent book on Patrick Henry College, the school's founding president told parents not to worry about their kids reading Plato because it was important "opposition research."

C. S. Lewis scholar Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University has a different take on the pagans of antiquity. His new book From Achilles to Christ (published by Intervarsity Press's academic division) makes the case that Christians can and should read the pagans to their own great benefit. He writes, "Yes, Christ alone is truth, but this does not mean that all non-Christian religions and philosophies are totally devoid of truth." Pagan philosophers and writers "did seek and groan" after the truth. Their efforts are worth contemplating.

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Interestingly enough, Markos predicts that homeschoolers and students of a new crop of classical Christian academies (the very same young people who populate Patrick Henry) will be the great stewards of the classics in the years to come as the modern university neglects them.

A Secular Call for a Return to the Humanities

Law professor Anthony Kronman of Yale University has issued a warning to secular universities: Continue to de-emphasize and trivialize the real content of the humanities and we will cede the entire project of contemplating the good life to religionists!

Kronman performs a fascinating reverse of Francis Schaeffer's position on the drug culture of the 1960s. Schaeffer openly admired the hippies' diagnosis of America as a land lost in the trap of personal peace and affluence, but he insisted their answers were wrong. Kronman says "the fundamentalists" are asking the right questions about the meaning of life but don't have the right answers. Instead, he hopes to see the humanities emerge as an alternative to religion for young people.

I can't help but wonder to whom exactly Kronman is referring when he refers to "the fundamentalists." I also wonder why he is so certain religious answers are unlikely to be correct. Grist for a later column from the professor, maybe. If Louis Markos is right, the homeschoolers will keep the fire of the humanities lit until the secular university is ready to rediscover them.

More News

Author of the Wren Cross controversy steps back from presidential duties at William and Mary. (Campus Magazine)

Tom DeLay speaking engagement at Seton Hall quashed. (The Corner at National Review)

Erwin Chemerinsky not too liberal to be law school dean at UC-Irvine, after all. (LA Times)

New wave of distinctively Catholic colleges on the rise. (Inside Higher Ed)

Hunter Baker is special assistant to the president and director of strategic planning at Houston Baptist University. Got a tip regarding academic research or higher education? E-mail him at

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Evangelical Minds columns include:

Christian Smith on Why Christianity 'Works' | Plus: Baylor publishing woes, and other news from the higher education world. (September 13, 2007)
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David Dockery on Christian Higher Ed's Key Challenges | Plus: Fearing secularization and "fundamentalization" and whether "Christian economics" exist. (August 30, 2007)
Why College Doesn't Turn Kids Secular | Also: Richard Land on the footbath controversy, Falwell's big Liberty gift, and other stories about higher education and research. (August 16, 2007)
Christian Higher Education Goes to Russia | Plus: One more argument against U.S. News rankings, and Silver Ring Thing goes to Harvard. (August 2, 2007)