American Government and Christianity
Probe's Kerby Anderson looks at the Christian influence on our American governmental institutions: our Christian roots, the importance of Christian character, and the influence of the Protestant Reformation.
America's Christian Roots
The founding of this country as well as the framing of the key political documents rests upon a Christian foundation. That doesn't necessarily mean that the United States is a Christian nation, although some framers used that term. But it does mean that the foundations of this republic presuppose a Christian view of human nature and God's providence.
In previous articles we have discussed "The Christian Roots of the Declaration and Constitution" [on the Web as "The Declaration and the Constitution: Their Christian Roots" ] and provided an overview of the books On Two Wings and One Nation Under God. Our focus in this article will be to pull together many of the themes of these resources and combine them with additional facts and quotes from the founders.
First, what was the perspective of the founders of America? Consider some of these famous quotes.
John Adams was the second president of the United States. He saw the need for religious values to provide the moral base line for society. He stated in a letter to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.1
In fact, John Adams wasn't the only founding father to talk about the importance of religious values. Consider this statement from George Washington during his Farewell Address:
And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.2
Two hundred years after the establishment of the Plymouth colony in 1620, Americans gathered at that site to celebrate its bicentennial. Daniel Webster was the speaker at this 1820 celebration. He reminded those in attendance of this nation's origins:
Let us not forget the religious character of our origin. Our fathers were brought hither by their high veneration for the Christian religion. They journeyed by its light, and labored in its hope. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of their society, and to diffuse its influence through all their institutions, civil, political, or literary.3
Religion, and especially the Christian religion, was an important foundation to this republic.
It is clear that the framers of this new government believed that the people should elect and support leaders with character and integrity. George Washington expressed this in his Farewell Address when he said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports."
Benjamin Rush talked about the religious foundation of the republic that demanded virtuous leadership. He said that, "the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid on the foundation of religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments."4
He went on to explain that
A Christian cannot fail of being a republican . . . for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self- denial, and brotherly kindness which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy. . . . A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teaches him that no man "liveth to himself." And lastly a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teaches him in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him.5
Daniel Webster understood the importance of religion, and especially the Christian religion, in this form of government. In his famous Plymouth Rock speech of 1820 he said,
Lastly, our ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment. Moral habits, they believed, cannot safely be trusted on any other foundation than religious principle, nor any government be secure which is not supported by moral habits. . . .Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.6
John Jay was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and became America's first Supreme Court Justice. He also served as the president of the American Bible Society. He understood the relationship between government and Christian values. He said, "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."7
William Penn writing the Frame of Government for his new colony said, "Government, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad."8
Historian C. Gregg Singer traces the line of influence from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth century in his book, A Theological Interpretation of American History. He says,
Whether we look at the Puritans and their fellow colonists of the seventeenth century, or their descendants of the eighteenth century, or those who framed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we see that their political programs were the rather clear reflection of a consciously held political philosophy, and that the various political philosophies which emerged among the American people were intimately related to the theological developments which were taking place. . . . A Christian world and life view furnished the basis for this early political thought which guided the American people for nearly two centuries and whose crowning lay in the writing of the Constitution of 1787.9
Actually, the line of influence extends back even further. Historian Arnold Toynbee, for example, has written that the American Revolution was made possible by American Protestantism. Page Smith, writing in the Religious Origins of the American Revolution, cites the influence of the Protestant Reformation. He believes that
The Protestant Reformation produced a new kind of consciousness and a new kind of man. The English Colonies in America, in turn, produced a new unique strain of that consciousness. It thus follows that it is impossible to understand the intellectual and moral forces behind the American Revolution without understanding the role that Protestant Christianity played in shaping the ideals, principles and institutions of colonial America.10
Smith argues that the American Revolution "started, in a sense, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg." It received "its theological and philosophical underpinnings from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion and much of its social theory from the Puritan Revolution of 1640-1660.11
Most people before the Reformation belonged to classes and social groups which set the boundaries of their worlds and established their identities. The Reformation, according to Smith, changed these perceptions. Luther and Calvin, in a sense, created a re- formed individual in a re-formed world.
Key to this is the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer where each person is "responsible directly to God for his or her own spiritual state.... The individuals who formed the new congregations established their own churches, chose their own ministers, and managed their own affairs without reference to an ecclesiastical hierarchy."12
These re-formed individuals began to change their world including their view of government and authority.
Declaration of Independence
Let's look at the Christian influence on the Declaration of Independence. Historian Page Smith points out that Thomas Jefferson was not only influenced by secular philosophers, but was also influenced by the Protestant Reformation. He says,
Jefferson and other secular-minded Americans subscribed to certain propositions about law and authority that had their roots in the Protestant Reformation. It is a scholarly common-place to point out how much Jefferson (and his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress) were influenced by Locke. Without disputing this we would simply add that an older and deeper influence -- John Calvin -- was of more profound importance.13
Another important influence was William Blackstone. Jefferson drew heavily on the writings of this highly respected jurist. In fact, Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England were among Jefferson's most favorite books.
In his section on the "Nature of Laws in General," Blackstone wrote, "as man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should, in all points, conform to his Maker's will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature."14
In addition to the law of nature, the other source of law is from divine revelation. "The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures." According to Blackstone, all human laws depended either upon the law of nature or upon the law of revelation found in the Bible: "Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws."15
Samuel Adams argues in "The Rights of the Colonists" that they had certain rights. "Among the natural Rights of the Colonists are these: First, a Right to Life; second, to Liberty; third, to Property; . . . and in the case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another. When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent."16 This concept of natural rights also found its way into the Declaration of Independence and provided the justification for the American Revolution.
The Declaration was a bold document, but not a radical one. The colonists did not break with England for "light and transient causes." They were mindful that they should be "in subjection to governing authorities" which "are established by God" (Rom. 13:1). Yet when they suffered from a "long train of abuses and usurpations," they believed that "it is the right of the people to alter or abolish [the existing government] and to institute a new government."
The Christian influence on the Declaration is clear. What about the Constitution?
James Madison was the chief architect of the Constitution as well as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers. It is important to note that as a youth, he studied under a Scottish Presbyterian, Donald Robertson. Madison gave the credit to Robertson for "all that I have been in life."17 Later he was trained in theology at Princeton under the Reverend John Witherspoon. Scholars believe that Witherspoon's Calvinism (which emphasized the fallen nature of man) was an important source for Madison's political ideas.18
The Constitution was a contract between the people and had its origins in American history a century earlier:
One of the obvious by-products [of the Reformation] was the notion of a contract entered into by two people or by the members of a community amongst themselves that needed no legal sanctions to make it binding. This concept of the Reformers made possible the formation of contractuals or, as the Puritans called them, "covenanted" groups formed by individuals who signed a covenant or agreement to found a community. The most famous of these covenants was the Mayflower Compact. In it the Pilgrims formed a "civil body politic," and promised to obey the laws their own government might pass. In short, the individual Pilgrim invented on the spot a new community, one that would be ruled by laws of its making.19
Historian Page Smith believes, "The Federal Constitution was in this sense a monument to the reformed consciousness. This new sense of time as potentiality was a vital element in the new consciousness that was to make a revolution and, what was a good deal more difficult, form a new nation."20
Preaching and teaching within the churches provided the justification for the revolution and the establishment of a new nation. Alice Baldwin, writing in The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, says,
The teachings of the New England ministers provide one line of unbroken descent. For two generations and more New Englanders had . . . been taught that these rights were sacred and came from God and that to preserve them they had a legal right of resistance and, if necessary a right to . . . alter and abolish governments and by common consent establish new ones.21
Christian ideas were important in the founding of this republic and the framing of our American governmental institutions. And I believe they are equally important in the maintenance of that republic.
1. John Adams, October 11, 1798, in a letter to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams - Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes, and Illustration (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1854), Vol. IX, 228-229.
2. George Washington, Farewell Address (September 19, 1796). Address of George Washington, President of the United States, and Late Commander in Chief of the American Army. To the People of the United States, Preparatory to His Declination.
3. Daniel Webster, December 22, 1820. The Works of Daniel Webster (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1853), Vol. I, 48.
4. Benjamin Rush, "Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," Early American Imprints. Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and Samuel F. Bradford, 1798), 8.
6. Webster, The Works of Daniel Webster, 22ff.
7. John Jay, October 12, 1816, in The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, Henry P. Johnston, ed., (New York: G.P Putnam & Sons, 1893; reprinted NY: Burt Franklin, 1970), Vol. IV, 393.
8. William Penn, April 25, 1682, in the preface of his Frame of Government of Pennsylvania. A Collection of Charters and Other Public Acts Relating to the Province of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: B. Franklin, 1740), 10-12.
9. C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1964), 284-5.
10. Page Smith, Religious Origins of the American Revolution (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976), 1.
11. Ibid, 2.
12. Ibid., 3.
13. Ibid, 185.
14. William Blackstone, "Of the Nature of Laws in General," Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, Section II.
16. Samuel Adams, "The Rights of the Colonists" (Boston, 1772), The Annals of America, Vol. II, 217.
17. John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 94.
18. James H. Smylie, "Madison and Witherspoon: Theological Roots of American Political Thought," American Presbyterians, 112.
19. Smith, Religious Origins, 3.
20. Ibid., 4.
21. Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 1928), 169.
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