A frequent refrain among the religious right is that the United States of America is a “Christian nation”, or that this country was founded on Christian principles. However, I’ve never seen any religious apologist explain what exactly this is supposed to mean beyond making the mere statement. If this nation was founded on Christian principles, which principles are those? If Christianity played such a major role in our nation’s founding, then what specific contributions did it make?
In an attempt to help the religious right answer this key question, I’ll list some of America’s core defining principles as given in the Constitution, and examine whether any of them could plausibly be said to come from Christianity or the Bible:
Republican democracy. Through a public ballot open to all adult citizens, Americans elect candidates who will represent them at the local, state and federal levels. All officials of the American government are either directly elected by the people or are appointed by others who are elected.
Separation of powers. The American government is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches. Through various mechanisms, these three branches can check each other’s power – the president can issue pardons and veto legislation, Congress can override vetoes and pass constitutional amendments, and the courts can rule laws and executive actions unconstitutional – which prevents too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one individual or group.
Federalism. The U.S. is set up as a series of states with a limited degree of autonomy, united together and overseen by a central, federal government. Power is shared between the two, with some areas being the province of the states and others set by the federal authority.
The process of amendment. The U.S. Constitution can be changed in any way, either to pass new clauses or to repeal existing ones, if the proposed amendment is approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states.
Religious freedom. The Constitution explicitly provides that no religious test shall ever be required for any public office in the United States, nor shall the government officially establish any religion. No law which infringes on the free exercise of religion is permitted.
Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that no law shall be passed which abridges the citizens’ freedom of speech, nor their right to protest and petition the government, nor the right of the press to report information on the events of the day.
Protection from search and seizure. The police force in America may not enter a person’s home or search their possessions without proving reasonable suspicion and obtaining the consent of an independent magistrate, in the form of a search warrant.
Trial by jury. Americans accused of crimes can only be convicted by a jury made up of people living in the area where the crime has taken place. In addition, people on trial have the right to confront witnesses against them and may not be compelled to testify against themselves.
Protection from cruel or unusual punishment. Cruel, degrading, or torturous punishments are constitutionally forbidden.
Equality of all people under the law. Most fundamental to the American experiment is the idea that all people have equal protection under the law, that no one group has any more or fewer legal rights than any other. This more than anything else is the idea that defines us, and though we have not always lived up to it, throughout our history we have steadily been making strides toward expanding the boundaries of liberty to include all Americans.
Now, let’s see what Biblical equivalents, if any, these principles have:
Republican democracy: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Rather than democracy, the Bible’s preferred model of government is a divine-right kingship, where one individual is hereditarily chosen and wields supreme power. This is what America’s founders were rebelling against when they brought forth this nation.
Separation of powers: Explicitly denied by the Bible. As above, in the Bible’s divine-right monarchy, a single individual wields supreme power over all functions of government. Some apologists seek to find an equivalent in a verse from Isaiah 33 – “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king” – but what they overlook is that this verse explicitly envisions all three of these powers as being held by the same person.
Federalism: Partial equivalent in the Bible. The Old Testament’s society, where each of the twelve tribes of Israel has partial autonomy over its own region, is similar to the American model of states. However, there is a notable dissimilarity as well: the Bible envisions membership in a tribe as hereditary, whereas states are made up of free collections of individuals who can move around at will. In any case, some sort of hierarchy is unavoidable in any organization too large for a single person to directly oversee.
The process of amendment: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Rather than creating a living, dynamic system of laws that can be improved and mended as society sees fit, the Bible claims that its laws are eternal and immutable, literally set in stone, and can neither be added to nor changed. The Old Testament says that each of its laws “shall be a statute forever” (Leviticus 23:41), and the New Testament says that anyone who suggests a different gospel should be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).
Religious freedom: Explicitly denied by the Bible. Far from granting people the right to worship as they see fit, the Bible says that anyone who encourages believers to serve other gods, or anyone who speaks “blasphemy”, should be killed (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Leviticus 24:16). God himself joins in on many occasions by slaughtering people who worship different gods (Exodus 22:20). Although Jesus does say that people should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), there is no indication that any non-Christian should enjoy the same freedom of worship as believers.
Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition: Explicitly denied by the Bible. As above, the Bible does not grant freedom of speech, but rather threatens death for those who speak in unapproved ways. Ancient Israel had no concept of the press, but there are also many cases in which people were killed for unapproved assemblies or for questioning their leaders (Numbers 16:35).
Protection from search and seizure: No equivalent in the Bible. Lacking a judicial system or separation of powers, ancient Israel had no notion of search warrants or of protection from arbitrary seizure.
Trial by jury: No equivalent in the Bible. Again, the Bible has nothing like our custom of the legal or judicial system. It does say that a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery can bring her before the priests and force her to drink “bitter water” which will cause her belly to swell and her thighs to rot if she is guilty (Numbers 5). If anything, this is most similar to the barbaric concept of trial by ordeal. It also says that anyone who accidentally kills someone may be killed without consequence by a relative of the deceased (whom it calls the “avenger of blood”) (Joshua 20). Again, no mention is made of convening a jury to determine the guilt of the accused. Finally, it says that any person may be convicted of a crime on the testimony of just two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), which is a far cry from the American legal system.
Protection from cruel or unusual punishment: Explicitly denied by the Bible. One of the most common punishments prescribed by the Bible is stoning – bludgeoning a person to death by smashing in his head and face with rocks. This penalty is prescribed for crimes such as disobeying one’s parents (Deuteronomy 21:21), picking up sticks on Sunday (Numbers 15:36), or being gay (Leviticus 20:13). This is “cruel and unusual” punishment by any rational definition of that term.
Equality of all people under the law: Explicitly denied by the Bible. The Bible makes it clear that the Israelites enjoyed special favor as compared to everybody else, and were treated differently by the Mosaic law code. For example, foreigners taken as slaves could be kept indefinitely, while Israelite slaves were freed every seven years during Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-46). Even among Israelites, there were stark divisions: women are worth considerably less than men (Leviticus 27:1-7), and the handicapped are discriminated against (Leviticus 21:17-23). Even Jesus joins in by making statements comparing non-Jews to dogs (Mark 7:27).
In sum, the basic principles of American democracy cannot be found in either testament of the Bible. This is hardly surprising: America’s founders drew their ideas from the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as from the English common law; they said so themselves.
And to this evidence, we must add the fact that many of America’s most influential founders held notably unorthodox religious views. Far from being the monolithic group of pious, church-going, by-the-book fundamentalists that today’s religious right imagines them as, the founders were a diverse, freethinking group, few of them strictly obedient to any creed. It is almost certainly no coincidence that, while divine-right monarchies across the world have ended in degeneration or destruction, the American system of government whose origins were based in reason and not hobbled by rigid dogma has survived and flourished.