In Gods We Trust: The Polytheistic Pedigree of the U.S. System of Law and Government (Guest Post, 2 of 2)

In Gods We Trust: The Polytheistic Pedigree of the U.S. System of Law and Government (Guest Post, 2 of 2) January 8, 2020

This guest post is from frequent commenter Lex Lata.

In part one of this piece, we surveyed the pre-Christian origins and medieval development of the English legal tradition from which the U.S. system of law and government spun off. In part two, we now turn to that U.S. system—in particular, the federal Constitution—and the paucity of evidence for a Mosaic or biblical foundation.

The U.S. Constitutional Experiment

To be clear, it is not my contention that Christian sentiments were absent from the political discourse of the American Revolution and Founding, broadly speaking. Patriots and Loyalists alike were overwhelmingly religious (of varying denominations and levels of orthodoxy), and often employed explicitly biblical ideas and rhetoric in their prolific and varied argumentation. For instance, even the highly heterodox deist Thomas Paine drew from the Old Testament in his viral pamphlet advocating independence, Common Sense. In a similar but less scriptural vein, the Declaration of Independence reflected an Enlightenment-flavored version of Christianized Ciceronian natural law, justifying rebellion against a king whose actions had become “destructive” of certain “unalienable Rights” vested in human beings by their “Creator” (also referred to in the Declaration as “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and “divine Providence”). At the state level, most of the new governments imposed religious tests for public office, required taxpayer support for certain churches, and had other indicia of religious “establishment.” Moreover, the conventional wisdom among the Founders was that religious belief served as one source of the personal virtue and moral judgment necessary for responsible citizens of a democratic republic.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, was a deliberately and controversially secular charter for a federal government. Its authority came not from God or the Bible, but rather from “the People of the United States.” It contained nothing like the explicitly Christian invocations typical of the old colonial charters, nor even the brief expressions of accommodating, ecumenical theism found in the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. In contrast to most of the new state constitutions, Article VI prohibited the application of any sort of religious test for federal office—a striking repudiation of the standard practice in English government.

The U.S. Constitution’s Unbiblical DNA

More to the point for our purposes, though, the record left by the most prominent constitutional practitioners of the time contains no material evidence that the Bible furnished meaningful guidance about the painstaking, uncertain, and contentious enterprise of crafting a new federal republican government based on the theory of popular sovereignty.[1] James Madison’s copious notes from the Constitutional Convention did not credit the Bible as the source of any useful structure or process, for instance. Nor did Hebrew governance warrant discussion in the hundreds of pages on “ancient republics” explored in John Adams’ ponderous study of constitutional theory and practice, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.

A similarly conspicuous silence marks The Federalist Papers, the series of public essays on the nascent Constitution penned under the shared pseudonym “Publius” by Framers Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These writings mention numerous examples from European history, including Greco-Roman antiquity (a common area of study in curricula back then), while citing the Bible exactly zero times. We see bupkis about the Ten Commandments specifically, and about Mosaic or biblical law generally.

Word searches on relevant ancient peoples and places in The Federalist Papers produce the following word frequency results:

  • Rome or Roman—26
  • Greece or Greek—21
  • Athens or Athenian—18
  • Achaean—17
  • Sparta—12
  • Carthage—7
  • Lacedaemonian—6
  • Lycia—4
  • Israel—0
  • Judea—0
  • Jerusalem—0
  • Jew or Jewish—0
  • Hebrew or Hebraic—0

As these numbers would appear to confirm, writings on political theory and practice authored by classical thinkers such as Cicero and Polybius “molded the legal expectations of the Framers of the American Constitution, and guided their legal judgment in the actual structuring of the checks and balances of that national charter.”[2] Although the U.S. Constitution arose in a Christian culture in which certain natural rights were widely believed to be God-given, its drafters looked more to Athens and Rome than to Mt. Sinai for pragmatic, actionable insights about democracy, republicanism, federalism, and separation of powers.

Conclusion

The historical record dispels the notion that our legal and political infrastructure rose atop a predominantly biblical foundation. Even the modern English vocabulary of law and government has its intellectual and etymological beginnings among the heathens. Woden-worshipping Anglo-Saxons gave us “right” (riht), “freedom” (freodom), and “laws” (laga). Greek believers in Athena and Apollo coined what would become “democracy” (δημοκρατία) and “politics” (πολιτικά), as well as “monarchy” (μοναρχία) and “tyrant” (τύραννος). And of course the ancient Roman contributions are legion (pun wholeheartedly intended). Libertas, res publica, fœderatio, constitutio, leges, legislatio, exsecutio, iudicialis, senatus, votum, veto, magister, ius naturale, etc. Like our calendar, with its days recalling Germanic gods, months bearing names from the Greco-Roman pantheon, and system of years based on the estimated delivery of Yahweh’s and Mary’s son, the U.S. legal and political system is a mutt, the syncretic product of centuries of intercultural and interreligious confluence.

The likelihood that America is a Christian nation
is directly proportional to the number of occurrences
of the words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “God,” “Bible,” and “Christianity”
in the US Constitution.
— Richard S. Russell

About the author: Lex Lata is a professional bureaucrat and amateur historian, with a bachelor’s degree in English and history and a law degree in . . . um, law. His hobbies include book learnin’ and strategy gamin’. Lex resides with Lady, Lad, and Little Lata in a weird old house in Minnesota

Some elements of this post have appeared in previous comments, rants, and sticky-notes left by the author here and there over the years. Dude likes the sound of his own voice.

 

[1] For further discussion, see Steven K. Green, The Fount of Everything Just and Right?  The Ten Commandments as a Source of American Law, 14 Journal of Law and Religion 525 (1999-2000).

[2] David J. Bederman, The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution, 1 (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

 

Image from richardhe51067, CC license

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lex Lata

    Fitting, then, that this was posted on Woden’s day, on the 8th of the month of Janus, in the year of our Lord 2020. 🙂

    Good timing, Bob. Thanks!

    • All hail the mighty Woden.

      • Michael Neville
        • Greg G.

          Jesus was nailed to a cross.
          Thor has a hammer.

        • Michael Murray

          Thor is Australian.

        • epeeist

          You seem to be having some problems with Loki/Logi of late.

        • Michael Murray

          We sure do. But our real problem is the Norse God of Fables: Murdochi. Some sort of irony as we unleashed him on the world.

        • richardrichard2013

          thor = the father in heaven who needs to appease his justice
          son = the guy who told his dad to nail him .

  • Michael Neville

    Excellent and informative pair of posts. Thank you, Lex.

  • abb3w

    Lacedaemonians….? Did I just fail a knowledge check?

    Huh. Federalists 18 and 25. Looks like it.

  • Polytropos

    Thanks Lex Lata, this is a very interesting analysis.

  • Wan Kun Sandy

    Thank you for the highly informative posts, Lex. I’m not American, but finds them fascinating and interesting. Come to think of it, by simple layman thinking, it indeed doesn’t really make sense if we’re looking at the Bible for democratic type of government, considering that biblical texts arose from monarchical culture, something which American revolutionists were fighting against.

    • Lex Lata

      Aye. Although some Enlightenment-era writers claimed to discern an ancient “Hebrew republic” in the Bible, the predominant form of OT government was clearly theocracy (with priest-judges applying sectarian Mosaic law) mixed with tribal/national monarchy. Hardly a model the Founders and Framers were looking to emulate.

      Moreover, whatever you think of the Bible, it isn’t a treatise on practical, worldly politics. It contains nothing like the systematic depiction and analysis of law and government found in the works of Cicero, Tacitus, Polybius, Aristotle, and other classical pagans.

  • Lex Lata

    Way off topic, but the Guardian has a riveting new piece on the “first century” Mark scandal.

    https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/jan/09/a-scandal-in-oxford-the-curious-case-of-the-stolen-gospel

    • Greg G.

      Thank you for sharing the link.

      • epicurus

        Ditto

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    Fascinating story (“story” in the scientific sense of an explanation based on good evidence). I’m educated as an engineer and a geologist, so I’ve never read the works of the Greek and Roman great thinkers nor learned the laws of my Viking forebears. But it makes a whole lot of sense. The men who created the constitution of the US were very well-educated by Enlightenment standards, and were trying very hard to apply all their best collective knowledge to the task. When I think about how hard and messy that work must have been, my awe at what they accomplished is always renewed. Yes, some of their thinking about issues like slavery is extremely troubling by modern standards. They didn’t get everything right. But they got a helluva lot more right than anyone else had at the time, engaged in a similar activity (especially at the state level).

    One thing I learned, not in the classroom but in the cubicle and the lab, was that everyone engaged in any intellectual field always stands on the shoulders of those who came before them. As it it with geology and engineering, so it is with any kind of lawmaking and constitution construction. As it should be; this is how we humans grow as a collective and learn to make a better world for all of us. It would make no sense for our educated constitution-makers to rely on any single set of shoulders beneath them than it would for a modern geologist to do her work solely based on the writings of one of the early parents of the field.

    What troubles me is that so, so many people don’t understand this whole concept. It isn’t taught to our high schoolers in the US, as far as I can tell, and most of our college graduates seem to have missed it as well. I worked as a hardware and system designer and developer in computer graphics in the 1980s and 1990s. I recall seeing an engineering trade magazine article in the late 1990s about recent trends in the algorithms used in computer graphics chip designs. The hot new trends the article trumpeted, claiming they were all brilliant new ideas, were well-tested in the graphics systems for military flight simulators that I had worked on a decade previously, and were documented in peer-reviewed engineering journals. Talk about reinventing the damned wheel! I’m so glad the framers of the US Constitution weren’t intent on reinventing wheels.

  • Thank you, Lex!