Part 4 in the Series:
Is America a Christian Nation?
By Don Enevoldsen
The question, then, of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation is not established in an appeal to Christian quotes from our Founding Fathers. Rather it is confirmed by the basic belief in individual rights, which, in the minds of Americans, were drawn from Christianity. Once this mindset of early America is understood, the Christian bias is easily discernable, even in political documents such as the United States Constitution, which make no mention of God or any other religious topic.
Christianity in American law is not demonstrated by what is written in the Constitution as much as it is by the unspoken assumptions underlying America’s foundational document. Those assumptions are discernible in numerous writings of the Founding Fathers, but most notably in the Declaration of Independence, which establishes in concise language the political philosophy behind the Revolution of 1776. The Declaration is to the Constitution what a mission statement is to a corporation’s bylaws. To say, as many do, that the Declaration should be disregarded in this discussion because it is not a part of American law is to display a great ignorance of the thinking of the Founding Fathers. They universally adhered to a concept called Natural Law. This concept appears in numerous places, but is concisely delineated in the Declaration in two paragraphs.
The most influential of these sources on the Continental Congress and later in the Constitutional Convention were the writings of four men. The first, and most significant was the seventeenth century English writer, John Locke, especially Two Treatises on Civil Government and A Letter on Toleration. In the early eighteenth century, French writer and philosopher Charles Montesquieu, wrote a lengthy examination of government function titled The Spirit of Laws. Later in the same century, a Swiss writer named Emmerich de Vattel, published a work called The Law of Nations, and not long after, British lawyer William Blackstone produced a lengthy commentary on English law.
All of these works discussed various applications of Natural Law. Every one of the Founding Fathers was familiar with these works and referred to them often during their political discussions. The concepts became topics of discussion by the general public during the years leading up to the Revolution, especially after a well known and highly respected Boston attorney, James Otis, developed these applications into a defense of the rights of colonists when he provided legal counsel for New Englanders accused of smuggling. All American colonists in 1776 were familiar with these concepts, and all believed they were an integral part of their Christian beliefs.
The United States government was designed on the foundation of relatively simple principles. In the first two paragraphs of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the original version of the document, delineated the purpose for government, the source of government’s right to exist, and the focus on individual rights that sets American democracy apart from most other governments in history. These concepts came predominantly from John Locke, with nuances contributed by the other sources mentioned above. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke outlined the basics of Natural Law, which can be summarized in these points.
• Every man is born in a state of nature.
• In that state, all men are equal.
• Being equal, all men share specific rights, imparted to them by the creator, which may not be justifiably taken from them under any pretense.
• These are the right to life, health, liberty and possessions.
• In a state of nature, the rights of those who are weaker can easily be violated by those who are strong. In order to protect themselves, men enter into a mutual compact of protection, by which they willingly give up a certain portion of their individual rights to a governmental structure in return for protection from those who would violate their rights.
• The purpose of government is to provide the protection of life, health, liberty and possessions that individuals are incapable of providing on their own. Locke expounded at some length on the fact that this is the “great and chief end” of men forming themselves into commonwealths.
A comparison of the text of the Declaration of Independence with Locke’s writing demonstrates how intentionally Jefferson borrowed not only the concepts of Natural Law, but even Locke’s language. At least a dozen phrases in the first two paragraphs are copied directly or stated in such similar form that the link is obvious. Of particular importance is the list of individual rights: “life, health, liberty and possessions.” Jefferson altered it slightly, leaving out health, and substituting “pursuit of happiness” for “possessions.” A look at Locke’s definitions of those terms indicates that Jefferson had in mind exactly the same rights as Locke.
Life is defined as, “by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible.” (Second Treatise on Civil Government §6) For Jefferson, the preservation of man included both life and health.
Locke’s definition of liberty was expressed as: “The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man.” (Second Treatise on Civil Government §22) Jefferson unquestionably adhered to the same definition.
“The pursuit of happiness” is not as ambiguous as might at first seem. Locke defined possessions or property in terms of labor. “Every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his.” (Second Treatise on Civil Government §27)
Jefferson probably borrowed his phrase from William Blackstone’s Commentaries, and de Vattel in The Law of Nations. Blackstone equated happiness with justice and described them as linked together in mankind as part of God’s design. The pursuit of justice is the best route to happiness:
“For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former, and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, ‘that man should pursue his own happiness.’”
De Vattel often referred to the happiness of a nation or an individual. Early in the book, he gave a description of what constituted happiness: “…whatever constitutes happiness,—with the peaceful possession of property, a method of obtaining justice with security, and, finally, a mutual defence against all external violence.”
Jefferson merely expanded Locke’s phrase to include the more comprehensive concept of justice and defense. His peers in the Continental Congress would have readily understood the reference as a right to ownership of property. Just two years earlier, they had passed a resolution called the Declaration and Resolves. Resolution 1 of that document used the phrase, “life, liberty and property,” a phrase that resonated with all Americans.
American democracy, then, was based on something more than simply saying that the majority rules. American freedom depended implicitly on the moral conviction that individual rights to life, liberty and ownership of property could never be violated, even when the individual in question was an enemy, or universally disliked or outvoted. The primary task of the government was considered, according to the Declaration of Independence, to be the protection of those rights. In Jefferson’s words, “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” That these convictions were identical with Christian morality was assumed without question. The emphasis on individual responsibility that de Tocqueville identified as the core of America’s Christian philosophy was identical to the core of America’s political philosophy.
To go to the beginning of the series: Part 1 — A Schizophrenic History
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