On Christmas, I decided to dig into my old archives of posts and repost some of my favorites from past Decembers. And since this blog is now 16 years old, there were a lot to choose from. I settled on posts from 2003, just a month into the blog’s existence, when I was writing much more often about separation of church and state and the influence of Christianity on the Founding Fathers. This is the first one.
Was America Founded on ‘Christian Principles’?
One of the arguments heard often, especially lately in light of the situation with Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, is that the US was “founded on Christian principles”. Whenever I hear this argument, I counter with this challenge – point to specific provisions within the constitution, the founding documents of the United State, the basis for the entire American system of government, that have an analog in the bible or in standard Christian theology. The response is usually silence. The major principles found in the constitution – separation of powers, checks and balances, limited government, separation of church and state, etc – are found nowhere in the bible, or in Christian theology for that matter. All of these principles are taken from the ideas of numerous philosophers – Montesquieu, Locke, Polybius, etc. – and none of them has an analog in Christianity.
The doctrine of checks and balances, in particular, has its roots in the work of Montesquieu, the French philosopher. The founding fathers cited his Spirit of the Laws innumerable times in explaining and defending the constitutional principle that divides authority between three different branches of government. Likewise, the notion of limited government, of a government constrained from increasing its authority, is traced back to many sources. Cicero, who argued that the purpose of government was to ensure justice, and Locke, who argued that the only just purpose for which the government could act was to secure the natural rights of the people, are the most obvious.
Certainly we find no model of government in the bible that contains these principles. Very little of the Levitical law that was allegedly given by God as his governmental system would be constitutional in the US. The biblical model of government is an outright theocracy, the kind that was explicitly rejected by the founding fathers. There was no right to free speech, no right to worship as one sees fit. Heathens and “witches” were put to death, along with homosexuals, unruly children, and a host of other things. There is no such concept as political liberty found in the bible anywhere. So where exactly are these “Christian principles” in the US constitution?
A common variation on this argument, especially given recent events in Alabama, is that our system of law is somehow “based on the Ten Commandments”. This claim has been repeated so often that it has become a cliche, but no one who advocates has apparently taken the time to actually read the Ten Commandments and compare them to the constitution. Let’s see how the Ten Commandments would fare if enacted into law in the US:
1. Thou shall have no other Gods before me.
Blatantly unconstitutional. The free exercise clause of the first amendment guarantees that we each have the right to follow any God and any religious belief system we wish.2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me
Also unconstitutional on free exercise grounds. Americans can make any graven image they wish to make, and bow down to whatever god or idol they wish.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
Unconstitutional on both freedom of religion and free speech grounds.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
Again, unconstitutional on free exercise grounds.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother
A good idea, in most cases, but a law requiring it would be unconstitutional and outside the purview of government. You can’t legally enforce an individual’s feelings toward their parents.
6. Thou shalt not kill
This one is obviously constitutional, and is a part of our legal system. But it’s also found in EVERY legal system, even those that have nothing to do with the bible or Christianity. No society can condone murder of each other and survive, so this is simply a survival imperative.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
Another one that is a good idea, but not constitutional if legally enforced. Adultery is a moral wrong, but it’s a private matter between individuals.
8. Thou shalt not steal
This is the second one that is obviously constitutional, but also found in every legal system regardless of the religious system that may have initially spawned it. A universal imperative that would be part of the law even if the bible never existed.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour
Some have interpreted this to be analagous to our perjury laws, but nothing in the text indicates that. It’s talking about lying in general, not in a legal sense during court proceedings. And while lying may be wrong, it’s not legally wrong except in specific circumstances – perjury and libel/slander. Under our system, most instances of lying would be covered by the first amendment free speech clause.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s
Not only unconstitutional, it would require the ability to read minds. If coveting what your neighbor has was against the law in the US, there would be no “keeping up with the Joneses”. You cannot, under our system, legislate against thoughts or feelings.
So there you have it. If the Ten Commandments were made law in the US, only 2 of them would be clearly constitutional, with a third between constitutional in some circumstances. Not only are the other 7 not principles of our governmental system, all of them would be anathema under our constitution. So how exactly is our constitutional system “based on” a set of rules, 75% of which would be obviously illegal under that system? The fact is that these statements are little more than tired cliches. Few people who repeat them have given them any thought. If they bothered to think such statements through, they would recognize the obvious absurdity of them.