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The Master's College

Dr. Frazer, Dr. Hall debate motives of America's Founding Fathers

By Bob Dickson

Dr. Gregg Frazer, Professor of History and Political Science at The Master’s College and Dr. Mark Hall, Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University squared off for a friendly debate Wednesday in front of an audience of students and community members at The Master’s College.

At issue were the influences on America’s Founding Fathers. Specifically, Frazer and Hall debated the role of Christianity in the nation’s founding – a timeframe both parties identified as roughly 1765-1791.

Frazer, who authored The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (University Press of Kansas, 2012), argued that America’s key founders were neither strictly Christian nor strictly deists, but were what he calls theistic rationalist. While the influences affecting them varied, they were most strictly guided by rationalism.

“The key founders believed that morality was indispensible to a free society, and that religion was the best source of morality,” Frazer said. “They didn’t want to separate religion from public life. They saw it as a necessary part of it.”

Hall, whose most recently published book is titled Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (Oxford University Press, 2012), argued that Christianity played a more significant role in the motives of some of the founders.

Hall, who opened the debate with a 20-minute presentation of his position, focused on the nation’s key founding documents: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, answering some of the objections to his point of view.

“Isn’t Thomas Jefferson a deist? Yes but he was not alone in writing the Declaration of Independence,” he said, “There were Protestants involved in the drafting, editing and signing of the document. You can’t limit it to Jefferson.”

He addressed the issue of the Declaration’s purpose, which was to announce a rebellion against civic authority – something the Bible opposes in several key New Testament passages.

Hall argued that for the church’s first 1,200 years, that restriction is affirmed, but that reform thinking broadened this premise. Key reformers, he claimed, were advocating that good Christians should resist tyrannical authority, and that by the 18th century, it had become dominant ideology within Protestant circles.

Frazer used the first portion of his 20 minutes to reiterate that he and Hall agree on most of the points surrounding the debate, and that Hall’s newest book had convinced him of the pivotal roll played by Roger Sherman (a devout follower of Christ) in the nation’s founding.

But while many of the Founding Fathers may have been Christians, he said, the key founders were something else. The ideologies that framed their thinking – and by extension the thinking behind America’s founding documents – were most informed by other influences.

“I agree there were Christians among the founders – more Christians than deists,” Frazer said. “The notion that they were all desists is wrong. So is the notion they were all Christians. Mark and I agree on that. My argument is that they were theistic rationalists. This is a hybrid belief system that includes deism, Christianity and rationalism, with rationalism as the dominant element.

“They believed the three elements would complement each other. But when a conflict could not be resolved or ignored, they believed that reason should play the decisive role.”

The debate, which was so friendly that at times it played more like a discussion amongst friends (Hall and Frazer are friends), reached its climax when the pair began digging into the implications of understanding the framer’s intent.

By knowing what the writers of the Constitution intended by what they wrote, we are better able to interpret the document itself. And that interpretation, they both argued, is the basis for how we govern ourselves.

“The founders believed that liberty without law is licentiousness,” Hall said. “They believed that liberty needed to be reigned in.”

From that perspective, both argued, you have to take a hard look at what the founders intended when they included the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution isn’t meant to allow every (and any) liberty as long as you don’t harm someone,” Hall said. “That was not the intent of the founders.”

Understanding the way the founders viewed religion is critical to a correct interpretation of the so-called separation of church and state, something both Frazer and Hall argue was not at all what the framers had in mind.

History doesn’t support the notion of a high wall of separation of church and state,” Hall said. “In reality, it meant literally what it said. It meant the government shall not establish a religion and force people to worship against their conscience.”

The debate conclude with an hour-long question-and-answer segment with the audience, where Frazer and Hall entertained questions ranging from the spiritual moorings of George Washington to the reasons behind the relative obscurity of lesser-known but highly influential founders such as Roger Sherman.

One attendee asked a bold question, considering the setting and context. He wanted to know why any of it mattered – why was it so important to uncover the motives and beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers?

Frazer answered.

“Because words have meaning,” he said. “Words matter … we’re supposed to be living under the Constitution … we need to understand what it means by what it says. We need to know what is meant to the people when they wrote it.”

Dr. Frazer's book.

Dr. Hall's book.