Mark David Hall’s Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity Has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans delivers on its subtitle by exploring the role Christians have played in advancing freedom and equality for all Americans, even for those Americans who despise Christianity. Hall does not focus on whether Christianity should support freedom and equality in theory or whether they say they do so. Instead, Hall turns to the historical record and explores the very real contributions Christians have made, from sea to shining sea, over the last four hundred years.
While reading this book, I kept thinking about Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, because Hall’s book, like McClay’s, does more than just tell a story. The message is deeper than that. Hall and McClay provide space for people who genuinely love, but do not worship, America. Too many Americans seem to hate America. For the extreme left, America is irredeemably racist; for the extreme right, America has capitulated decisively to the woke mobs. The hard left sees policing, election law, and immigration restrictions as an extension of Jim Crow and slavery. The hard right sees public virtue, the rule of law, and countenancing disagreement as evidence of a spineless unwillingness to defend America. Hall’s balance brings no small measure of relief.
The overlap between Christianity and America should be obvious but let me make it explicit. When talking about Americans in 1620, 1720, 1820, or 1920—even 2020—we are talking about people who, in overwhelming majority, identify as Christians. Simply reminding us of this religious consensus—however superficial it may be in fine detail—helps explain the importance of Hall’s book. To understand America, we must understand Christians in America. Of course, we can criticize Christians in America for their failings, but we should do so only if we take a fair measure of their successes as well.
Hall offers a reassessment of the Puritans. Far from harboring, in H. L. Mencken’s pithy phrase, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” Hall makes the case that American Puritans had a good time. They liked their beer—often drinking it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and they loved brightly colored clothes. They did not look down on sexual activity; instead, they insisted upon it in marriage: “James Mattock, for instance, was expelled from First Church of Boston for denying conjugal fellowship to his wife.”
They fare especially well when compared to their counterparts in Europe. A puritanical obsession with the Bible encouraged a Hebraic republicanism—the belief that “republics were the only form of government approved by the Bible”—that flowered in the New World in the Mayflower Compact (1620) and “literally hundreds of ecclesiastical and civil covenants.” True, the reliance on the civil law of the Bible made some penalties harsher. Adultery and incest were not capital offenses in England, but they were in New England. Yet “a third of all English criminals were sentenced to death; a person could be executed for stealing property worth little more than a shilling.”
By contrast, Puritan New England followed Exodus 22:4, requiring restitution for theft—but not death. Yes, the Salem witch trials occurred in Puritan New England, both because they feared witches but also because they ignored the protections—specifically their rejection of the use of so-called “spectral” evidence—that the Puritans themselves had put in place to protect people from false accusations. And the Puritans executed their last witch in 1692. By contrast, as late as 1782, a conviction in Switzerland for witchcraft resulted in an execution. Massachusetts law also said “civic authorities should not attempt to constrain [citizens] to believe or profess against their consciences.” Hall rightly notes that billions of people today would delight to live under such a puritanical regime.
Hall then makes a case for the American Revolution, responding to criticisms that the war was unjust and unbiblical. According to Hall, “resisting tyranny is best characterized as self-defense, not rebellion.” The Christian contribution shines brightly here. As early as 1556, John Ponet made a case for private action against tyrants, albeit with caveats, and, by 1579, George Buchanan extended this right to “the whole body of the people” to “every individual citizen.”
But did the Americans face actual tyranny? According to Hall, they did. Parliament taxed them, though they had no representation in Parliament. To those who shrug at such things, Hall asks us to “consider for a moment how Americans should react if the United Nations required every American citizen to pay a tax of one dollar a year.” We wouldn’t be reaching for our wallets.
Things got worse. In the Declaratory Act of 1766, Parliament claimed the authority to “bind the colonies and the people of America . . . in all cases whatsoever.” In a speech in Parliament, William Pitt opposed that phrase specifically, and a decade later “the Aldermen of London petitioned the King on behalf of their American cousins.” After the American Revolution, Edmund Burke insisted the colonists “were purely on the defensive,” because Parliament, had it been successful, would have rendered their assemblies “totally useless” and undermined any “sort of security for their laws or liberties.”
The American Revolution addressed a narrowly focused set of legitimate colonial grievances, but this just war left other issues of justice unresolved, the foremost of which was slavery. Hall addresses directly this most troubling tension in American history: the proclamation of liberty and the practice of slavery. He mentions both founders who owned slaves and founders who resisted slavery. Hall also shows how founders changed their minds about the moral permissibility of slavery—as in the case of Benjamin Franklin—or how they were simply hypocritical. Some state laws made freeing slaves difficult, and founders with debts could not free their slaves anyway. But Hall does not shrink from offering the following sober-minded assessment: “The likely main reason was that slave owners enjoyed the benefits of slavery so much that they rationalized their participation in it.”
Thomas Jefferson, hardly a saint on the issue of slavery, repudiated the slave trade in an early draft of the Declaration, drafted a bill banning the importation of slaves, and published Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), in which he writes, “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” In 1852, Frederick Douglass said, “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”
This hope for the end of slavery was shared by many delegates at the Constitutional Convention; only three states permitted the importation of slaves at the time, and, as Paul J. Polgar notes in Standard-Bearers of Equality, the free black population grew at a faster rate than the enslaved population, making Oliver Ellsworth’s statement that slavery “will not be a speck in our country” seem like a reasonable expectation instead of a farfetched hope. Things changed, Hall notes, when the newly invented cotton gin made it possible to grow short-staple cotton profitably. Only decades later did Southern leaders start arguing that slavery was a positive good.
Hall next turns to evangelical influence in America before the Civil War, including Christian opposition to slavery. He rightly notes that the Quakers fought—as best as pacifists can—the horrors of slavery but also observes that the Quakers could not possibly have succeeded by themselves. In 1855, Quakers represented 0.003% of all Americans. They had many co-belligerents. For example, Charles Finney, a popular revivalist, called slavery “a great national sin” and withheld communion from slaveholders. Hall asks us to consider Arthur and Lewis Tappan, New York businessmen who, with their allies, “helped fund the printing and distribution of at least one million pieces of antislavery literature.” By 1838, the society they helped start—the American Anti-Slavery Society—had 250,000 members.
Hall considers not just slavery but also the forced removal of the Cherokees. In doing so, he introduced this reader to one Samuel Worcester, a missionary living in the midst of the Cherokees in defiance of Georgia state law. On March 13, 1831, the Georgia Guard arrested Worcester, who claimed the arrest was illegitimate because he was technically a federal official. Three weeks later, the Georgia Guard returned with news that Worcester had lost his position as postmaster, so he had to leave the land. But he refused to do so. Arrested that July, a Georgia court sentenced him to four years of hard labor. The Supreme Court sided with Worcester and the Cherokees that same year, however, though President Andrew Jackson disregarded the decision.
Hall also shows how some concern for the separation of church and state stemmed from anti-Catholic animus. Ever balanced, Hall notes that some fears about Roman Catholicism arose from statements made by the papacy. But the popes are not to blame for the Massachusetts Protestants who burned down a convent in 1834 on the mistaken belief that the nuns kept a Protestant woman there against her will. Even still, when the separation of church and state became perceived as anti-religious, rather than merely anti-Catholic, Americans rejected it by a landslide.
Hall turns from religious education to religious objects. Here he shines. Crosses dot our public landscape, and many a tombstone of a departed soldier features a cross, too. The Ten Commandments find a place in our courthouses, including the highest one. In Van Orden v. Perry, upholding the constitutional permissibility of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas state capitol, Chief Justice William Rehnquist writes that, in order to see the role of the Ten Commandments in the history of America, “We need only look within our own Courtroom. Since 1935, Moses has stood, holding two tablets that reveal portions of the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew, among other lawgivers in the south frieze.”
Hall also shows how ludicrous and unseemly opposition to public symbols of faith can be. The Freedom from Religion Foundation objected to a Star of David at a Holocaust and Liberators Memorial, but, mercifully, “the Ohio legislature ignored this complaint, and the memorial was dedicated on June 2, 2014.” Hall notes, importantly, how the attempt to defend the presence of religious words and symbols by appealing to history favors those faiths with a longstanding pedigree in the United States, at the unfortunate expense of relative newcomers.
Finally, Hall considers four arguments against religious liberty and responds to each. First, against the claim that religion does not deserve special regard, Hall says religion is more important to people, and disrupting it will cause much social strife. He also explores how religious liberty offers religious people space to do their good works that benefit everyone.
Second, Hall addresses the concern for third-party and dignitary harms. The courts have recognized that religious accommodation creates burdens on others, but not every burden is an unbearable one. Hall compares a draftee’s assessment of a religious pacifist’s exemption to a same-sex couple’s reaction to a florist saying she will not make them a floral arrangement. The draftee may see his burden as the greater one. But neither burden is unreasonable.
Third, Hall considers the concern that religious liberty protects the wrong people, either corporations (who are not people) or majorities (who can protect themselves). Hall responds to the claim about corporations by elucidating the longstanding legal pedigree of treating corporations as persons, and he writes convincingly of Jews who protested a Massachusetts law requiring their business to be closed on Sundays. Hall observes that no one suggested the Constitution did not apply to a corporation in Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market (1961). His point: the Supreme Court did not start thinking about religiously minded business owners with Hobby Lobby and abortion.
To the related complaint that religious liberty only protects majorities, Hall replies convincingly that, on the contrary, religious minorities have been the ones most to benefit from religious liberty protections. He also charmingly explores the challenges of deciding how to aggregate various religious groups. Do Southern Baptists, at 5.3% of the population, count as a majority?
Lastly, Hall considers those who say that religious exemptions violate the establishment clause. Hall responds by exploring how religious accommodations to members of a minority religion do not establish religion or encourage it. He notes how historic peace churches advocated for the protection of all pacifists, not just those who belong to their churches.
In his conclusion, Hall recognizes that he has not said everything about the role of Christians in America. For my part, I wish Hall had said more about religion being part of the fundamental fabric of the human person or about religious liberty’s ability to protect and support many other liberties, from liberty of conscience and freedom of association to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Furthermore, religion provides a bulwark against state encroachment on liberty, because, when supported by coreligionists, individuals can stand with confidence against the state. But perhaps that’s just my plea for another book.
Mark David Hall’s Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land is a refreshing read, and arguably his best effort so far. He reminds us that Christians, for all their sins, have advanced liberty throughout all the land.