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Christianity vs. The Constitution - Christian Principles in the Constitution?

It's a Myth that the Constitution Reflects Christian Principles, Morals


The Constitution reflects Christian principles and morals.


Opponents of church/state separation sometimes claim that the Constitution embodies or reflects fundamental Christian morals and principles. Their point seems to be that we should regard the Constitution as a Christian document, not as a secular document. Since the Constitution is the foundation of the American government, the implication is that American government is Christian in nature, not secular, and so it's only right if Christian beliefs are promoted by the state. Is any of this true?

Although the argument seems to flow relatively smoothly, the opening premise stands on very shaky ground. For one thing, it is clear that there is no obvious and unequivocal statement in the Constitution which specifies the importance or even relevance of Christian principles or morals — at no point is Christianity in any way singled out as a basis for any provision, principle, or institution. Therefore, anyone who wants to argue that Christianity is indeed present in that text must provide well supported and reasonable interpretations.


Biblical vs. Constitutional Government

One of the most common interpretations offered by opponents of church/state separation is that the government structures created by the Constitution reflect governing principles outlined in the Bible. For example, it is argued that the tripartite separation of powers and system of checks and balances was derived from Isaiah 33:22, "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our King; he will save us." Such a link, however, seems like little more than wishful thinking — there is just no good reason to imagine that any of the authors read that verse and felt inspired to dived the American government into legislative, judicial and executive branches.

The fact of the matter is, the Bible does not provide for any specific form of government outside of, perhaps, a monarchy — exactly the system of government which the founders of America fought to separate themselves from (and even then, the example of the monarchy is only in the Old Testament, not the Christian New Testament). Any attempt to link biblical passages with the Constitution requires a great deal of imagination and a considerable dependence upon metaphor. Curiously, such an argument is often offered by fundamentalists who tend to rely heavily on literalist rather than metaphorical interpretations of the Bible.

The Constitution also does not embody the Ten Commandments in any way, another common argument from those who claim that the Constitution is linked to Christianity. As a matter of fact, it should be pointed out that the first two of the Ten Commandments are effectively repudiated because the Constitutional protection of religious freedom allows people to worship various gods, not to mention make and worship graven images.

Another problem with the claim that the Constitution embodies Christian principles lies in Article VI, which stipulates that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." If the authors of the Constitution did indeed wish to create a document designed to favor Christianity, why would religious tests (common in the colonies at the time) be specifically forbidden?


Complaints About a Secular Constitution

The Constitution is, in fact, unusually secular for the time when it was written. That this was very obvious to the people at the time can be seen in the fact that so many Christian preachers stood up and attacked it specifically because it lacked any overt protection or promotion of Christianity. A favorite target seems to have been the prohibition of any religious tests for public offices — many Christian leaders wanted religious tests on the national level as well as the state level.

Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, in their book The Godless Constitution, quote an article widely reprinted at the time which complained that, without religious tests, the following would have a say in politics: "1st. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence - 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the Trinity - 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches - 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain - 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil - 6thly. Jews etc. etc."

Kramnick and Moore quote a number of others who wrote in newspapers at the time; many reflect the above concern with Quakers whose pacifism and anti-slavery stance seems to have given many the sort of shudders which are today reserved for the most extreme "cults." Writers complained about how the authors of the Constitution showed "general disregard of" and "cold indifference towards religion."

One person observed that the "Constitution is de(i)stical in principle, and in all probability the composers had no thought of God in all their conclusions." What a difference two centuries make: this is exactly the argument made by separationists today while fundamentalist Christians, the theological and intellectual heirs of the quoted individual, vigorously argue exactly the opposite. So conservative Christians complained that the Constitution was too secular when it was being voted on, but now that they are stuck with it contemporary conservative Christians argue that their religion and beliefs are actually embedded in the text after all.

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