I recently covered the utterly laughable claim that American jurisprudence is founded in the Ten Commandments. A series of must read posts from Ed Brayton at Dispatches and Jonathan Rowe over at Positive Liberty today takes on the equally silly claim that the Bible was a core inspiration for the Constitution and other American political/philosophical innovations.
In an age where many “Christian Nation” advocates and even Republican Presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee are claiming that the nation needs to be “taken back for Christ,” it’s really quite worth it to highlight the deep misconceptions many have about whether it ever belonged to Christ in the first place.
All too often, such people seem to treat things like the Constitution as if it simply appeared in history full formed and we must intuit out it’s authors’ thinking from looking at the document alone. But, in fact, most of the chief architects of America’s founding put down their day to day deliberations on paper for all to read. And while Christian Nation advocates are quick to point to those founders that were Christians (though many of a sort they themselves would never accept as “true”) they are often quite unwilling to look at what these Christians were actually thinking about and debating: what ideas were actually cited as influential to their specific work as political architects.
Dr. Gregg Frazer, himself a Christian historian at a Christian university, lays this record bare (emphasis mine):
In the hundreds of pages comprising Madison’s notes on the constitutional convention (and those of the others who kept notes), there is no mention of biblical passages/verses in the debates/discussions on the various parts and principles of the Constitution. They mention Rome, Sparta, German confederacies, Montesquieu, and a number of other sources — but no Scripture verses.
In The Federalist Papers, there is no mention of biblical sources for any of the Constitution’s principles, either — one would think they could squeeze them in among the 85 essays if they were, indeed, the sources; especially since the audience was common men who were familiar with, and had respect for, the Bible. The word “God” is used twice — and one of those is a reference to the pagan gods of ancient Greece. “Almighty” is used twice and “providence” three times — but neither is ever used in connection with any constitutional principle or influence. The Bible is not mentioned.
A common response from theocrats at this point is that the Declaration of Independence does cite a Creator as the ultimate source of man’s rights. This was always a fairly silly and evasive argument to begin with: for all its historical significance, the Declaration is simply not the binding legal framework of our nation, and the “self-evident” statement is in any case far more important than the fact that Jefferson at the time assumed as an afterthought that a Creator was responsible (“self-evident” is a codeword for the use of reason to discern truths, and precisely the opposite of revealed religion).
Dr. Frazer cripples this “Declaration gambit” even further by noting that Jefferson was not exactly silent on the inspiration of his thinking: he mentions many ideas from classical antiquity and pagan cultures, but doesn’t mention the Bible at all:
In a May 8, 1825 letter to Henry Lee, Jefferson identifies his sources for the Declaration’s principles. He names as sources: Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and (Algernon) Sidney — he does not mention the Bible. Then again, the terminology in the Declaration is not specifically Christian — or even biblical, with the exception of “Creator.” The term “providence” is never used of God in the Bible, nor are “nature’s God” or “Supreme Judge of the world” ever used in the Bible.
The fact is, at the time of its founding, the political culture of the United States was primarily notable for its lack of religious citation, not for the few instances in which it occurred. And the documents, discussions, and thinking recorded by the founders are flat out conspicuous in the paucity of their references to the Bible of Christianity. Christian Nation advocates like to cite this or that quote or snippet here and there mentioning Christianity, but this is shockingly insufficient to prove their case.
If the founding was a fundamentally and distinctively Christian process, then the record should be saturated with Biblical citations and debates and claimed insights at every turn. It’s not. If the Bible was really the or even a major source of inspiration, then the different strains of Christian thought, interpretation, and moral theology held by the many and diverse founders should have clashed openly as the founders worked out these theological differences. There is no record of this, but not for lack of heated debate. Simply for lack of anyone thinking that the Bible was relevant to those debates.
This isn’t to say that Christianity played no part in the culture, or even in the formation of many people’s particular spin on value and morality. The vast majority of early Americans were religious, the deism of some of the founders has been overplayed by some atheists. But the reality is still that none of the core philosophical/legal innovations of our nation have roots in the Bible, and few if any of the founding fathers thought that they did. Worse, many of these principles, such as religious liberty itself, are arguably but obviously anti-Biblical. Our nation was, and was seen as by the founders, as a worldly framework for the nation’s worldly business. The matter of religion was seen as something that private citizens were more than capable enough of figuring out on their own.
This view of things, of religious freedom without insisting that the process of government have any religious nature, is both brilliant and still today the best framework for religious pluralism. Enemies of religious pluralism are welcome to try and keep corrupting this ideal, but they need to stop pretending that the founders, even the Christian founders, were on their side.
Addendum: Also check out this post discussing a set of letters back and forth between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. As David Ignatius of the Washington Post notes: “Their letters are a reminder that the Founders were men of the Enlightenment — supreme rationalists who would have found the religiosity of much of our modern political life quite abhorrent.” Ramesh Ponnuru responds… or does he?!?! That reminds me: I still owe readers an promised comprehensive essay on stem cells. It would be easier if I could find another copy of Ramesh’s book, but it doesn’t seem to be popular stock compared to such conservative treasties as “Ann Coulter’s new book for people that find paragraphs and arguments too confusing and prefer to just read lists of short quotes calling Obama stupid.”