Today, September 17, is a monumental date in history. It is the anniversary of an event, now 223 years old, that continues to shape our nation and our world as much as any other occurrence. If this date does not ring an immediate bell, it is the day we celebrate the signing of the United States Constitution. After four brutal summer months spent debating in a hot, stuffy Independence Hall, our nation’s governing document was finally forged. Its subsequent history makes it one of the most read and emulated writings in human history. Not only does it hold the honor of regular imitation; it continues itself to operate as America’s ultimate written law. More than two centuries under one government is, historically speaking, quite an accomplishment.
Yet should Christians celebrate this day? After all, were not many of the Framers deists or other forms of non-Christians belief? Do people too often ascribe religious reverence to the Constitution only fitting for the truly sacred?
The answer to all of these questions, I think, is yes. It is true that many of the men who wrote the Constitution were not Christians. It is further true that reverence for the document can often turn to sacrilege. Still, I think the answer to the first question is also in the affirmative: Christians can and should celebrate our American Constitution.
To begin, the American Constitution does much to realize the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence constitutes a foundational statement of who America is and what she desires to become. It makes statements regarding nature, mankind, and justice the shadow of which stretches to this day over all of our words and deeds, from Yorktown to Gettysburg to Iraq. These basic concepts of human equality, limited government, and the dignity of individuals merely because of their humanity, are all principles Christians can admire and desire in a well-executed state.
The Declaration, however, does not form a government. Its principles certainly give broad outlines to just government’s basis—the consent of the governed—but not a structure capable of realizing such a state. Thus, the Constitution, while far from divorced from the Declaration, contains its own genius in taking ideas of equality and natural rights and creating a framework by which these conceptions would be realized and protected. It recognizes that government is not everything and thus that human beings are more than citizens. Government must then be limited to certain ends and to certain means to accomplish those ends. Limited government, contra the totalitarian state, recognizes room for the Church and for persons as religious beings apart from state coercion.From these general principles the Constitution implements concrete realizations. The most obvious for Christians is religious liberty. Americans have, with few exceptions, enjoyed a long period of liberty to worship as we see fit. Bibles are easily accessible. Religions and Christian denominations abound and multiply generally undisturbed by serious state coercion. Even early state church establishments rarely kept non-established congregations from exercising their religion as they saw fit. I think we have lived with it so long that we can take such liberty for granted.
Another thankful principle of the Constitution is equal protection by the laws. The Constitution constantly fights the battle to treat all humanity equally before the law, to rid government of actions that treat persons differently on the basis of class, race, ethnicity, or any other spurious category. The Bible, too, rejects the evil use of these differences in order to treat others sinfully.
Finally, the Constitution’s institutional mechanisms of separation of powers and federalism go far in understanding the capacity for evil in the human heart. The Constitution does not trust citizens or politicians to be models of virtue. It seeks to distribute power widely and to make self-interest act in league with the common good. While far from a redemptive document, the Constitution is a restraining document. Its view of human nature allows it to restrain evil while maintaining true liberty to an extent unmatched by other human political endeavors.
So I ask again: should we as Christians celebrate the Constitution on September 17? Yes, we should. We should not celebrate it wrongly or understand it as something other than merely human and thus fallible. But we can see in it the fingerprints of God, working through fallen and often unbelieving men to create a document that protects His Church from state persecution, one that recognizes much good and restrains much evil. As an act of common grace, we can thank God this Friday for that great achievement of the Founders, the American Constitution.