Last Wednesday I debated Dr. Tim Schmig on the question of whether the constitution was based upon Biblical principles for CFI Michigan. The turnout was amazing, the 4th largest crowd we’ve ever had, and the debate went pretty much exactly as I expected. The debate was civil and amiable — Tim was nothing but a gracious gentleman over the last few months as we’ve planned this — but I think any objective observer would conclude that I got the best of him in this debate.
I’ll post the video of the debate below, but let me first provide some details on the event. The resolution for the debate was:
Resolved: That the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.
Some of you will no doubt recognize this as a direct quote from the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Bey of Tripoli, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by the Senate in 1797. I suggested this as a resolution because I wanted to make sure that we were debating the ideas that the government was based on, not the religious views of the founding fathers or the scope and meaning of the First Amendment. Tim even agreed with that at the time, but as you’ll see in the video he spent most of his time talking about the religious views of the founders and not the resolution. This is something I had anticipated happening, despite the wording of the topic.
It’s unusual for the resolution for a debate to contain evidence for one side, but this clearly does. I did not rely on that, but it was the first of six arguments I made in my opening speech. The others:
2. If the Constitution were based upon Christianity, we would expect that it would say so. I quoted Tim from a video talking about the Mayflower compact, which he correctly explained contained language indicating a vertical covenant with God. That was the norm for charters and constitutions up to that point, but the Constitution contained no such language — and this was quite intentional.
3. The lack of language explicitly acknowledging God or Christianity was a matter of great controversy at the time. Many anti-federalist ministers and pamphlateers railed against the new Constitution precisely because it lacked such language, warning that a failure to acknowledge our dependence on and belief in God would bring down his wrath upon us.
4. Not only did people make arguments like that, many attempts were made at the state ratification conventions to amend the preamble to the constitution to add in such “Christian nation” language. All of them failed, of course. But the fact that those attempts were made shows that the framers of the constitution had left such covenantal language out on purpose and argued against adding it. And it shows that the constitution was viewed at the time as a secular document rather than a Christian one.
5. I offered a quote from John Adams’ Defense of the Constitution of the United States, in which he said this:
“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven…it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
6. There is no mention of the Bible or Christian theology as influences over the Constitution found in the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers are a collection of more than 80 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay and published in newspapers. They were intended to explain and defend the various provisions of the new Constitution to the people so they would support its passage during the ratification conventions. Not once is the Bible or Christian theology mentioned as a source for any of the ideas found in the Constitution. Now remember, they were writing for an overwhelmingly Christian audience in order to convince them to support the Constitution. If they could point to support in the Bible or in Christian theology for constitutional principles like checks and balances and the separation of powers, their argument would certainly have been more convincing to their audience.
Tim did not respond to most of these arguments. He attempted to rebut the Treaty of Tripoli with two arguments that contradicted. First, he said that Article 11, which contained the language above, was “not in the original treaty.” During cross examination, I asked him what he meant by that, that it was not in the Arabic version? He said yes. And he was right, it wasn’t in the Arabic version. He also admitted that Article 11 was in the version that was passed by the Senate and published in newspapers at the time, which is all that really matters for my position.
Second, he argued that the Senate had no choice but to pass it, that they were “under duress” because our sailors had been taken hostage and were being held for ransom and they had to rescue them. But the treaty had been negotiated over several years time and, as he said, Article 11 was not in the Arabic version. So they could have stripped it out of the English version and passed it and nothing would have changed. So his two arguments contradicted one another.
He attempted to argue against my argument about the lack of mention in the Federalist Papers, saying that the Constitution doesn’t come with footnotes and it’s not unusual for people to write about something without explicitly naming their sources. But as I pointed out, the framers did name their sources, both in the Federalist Papers and in private letters, and those sources were Greek, Roman and Enlightenment philosophers. Never did they mention the Bible as a source for the ideas in the constitution.
A couple of arguments he made struck me as rather amusing. In the first cross examination I asked him this question: If you met someone today and he told you that he believes in a creator but he doesn’t believe Jesus was divine, he rejects the virgin birth, original sin, the atonement, the resurrection, etc, would you consider that person a Christian? He made the odd suggestion that they might have a “Christian worldview” but finally admitted that he would not consider them a Christian. I asked this question intentionally and strategically. I knew that he would bring up the Declaration of Independence and its mention of a Creator, nature’s god, providence and so forth. And indeed he did in his rebuttal, going so far as to claim that those phrases were proof that Jefferson had a “Christian worldview.” I then noted that he had already admitted that Jefferson was not a Christian during cross examination.
Also during the cross-ex, I asked him if he could name any provision in the Constitution that was based on the Bible and his answer was an incredible reach. He said that checks and balances were only needed because of original sin. I managed to avoid actually facepalming when he said that.
He also brought up the Donald Lutz study, which I was really hoping he would do. In fact, I was going to bring it up myself if he hadn’t. But he mentioned it briefly in his opening speech, which gave me the opportunity to show how badly he was distorting the findings of that study (probably not intentionally; more likely he was just copying from David Barton and others who have been lying about that study and hadn’t read the original). He said:
When Donald Lutz examined the founding documents, looking at over 15,000 pamphlets, he stated that the Bible was a primary source, more than any other source for the founding fathers.
This was absolutely perfect for me because I had a copy of that study with me. And it is simply false to claim that Lutz said anything like this misrepresentation. First, his study was not of “the founding documents,” it was of publicly available political writings between 1760 and 1805. Nor was it a study of documents written by the founding fathers but mostly of documents written by others about the political issues of the day. It had nothing at all to do with what sources were influential on the founding fathers. In fact, 75% of the Bible references in the study came from sermons that were reprinted as pamphlets. As I pointed out, what that study really discovered was that Christian ministers mention the Bible a lot.
But more importantly, the study looked specifically at documents from 1787 and 1788, when the constitution was written, debated and ratified. And here is what he found about that specific period of time:
“The Bible’s prominence disappears, which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible had little to say. The Anti-Federalists do drag it in with respect to basic principles of government, but the Federalists’ inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant.”
In other words, the only people who cited the Bible in relation to the Constitution during that time were those who used the Bible to argue against its passage. This is a very compelling argument for my position and he handed it to me on a silver platter by bringing it up.
Okay, enough of that. Here’s the video: