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

"All knowing had the "all" for a reason"

When Christians Treat God Like a ..."
"If your god is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, there is absolutely no possible way for ..."

When Christians Treat God Like a ..."
"non sequitur.Make better arguments."

When Christians Treat God Like a ..."
""God is not made of the stuff of the universe. He is not, therefore, constrained ..."

When Christians Treat God Like a ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!