Natural Law

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.

Next: The Weakness of American Democracy

To go to the beginning of the series: Part 1 — A Schizophrenic History

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

Natural Law

8 thoughts on “Natural Law

  • August 13, 2012 at 9:42 am
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    This blog post begins:

    “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.”

    I don’t usually disagree with you – and I may not be now – but I think that the above may be slightly misleading. This seems to imply that the Founding Fathers had Christianity in mind when they framed the Constitution and other founding documents. I don’t think that that’s accurate. Since many of the main actors (Washington, Jefferson, etc.) were deists – a philosophy that loosely believes in the God of the Bible but that denies the deity of Jesus Christ – it might be more accurate to say that the principles laid out by our Founders are not Christian but are rather simply compatible to some degree with Christianity. There is overlap between Christianity and the philosophy that guided the founding of the United States, true, but it’s much more accurate to say that our nation was founded on deist principles, I think…

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  • August 13, 2012 at 9:56 am
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    I understand your point, Ryan, but the point I’ve drawn from de Tocqueville is that in the minds of early Americans, including the Deists, was that the belief in Natural Law, as explained by John Locke and other political philosophers, was not only compatible with Christianity but identical to it. Locke makes it clear that he believed his philosophy was taken directly from the Bible, through the vehicle of reason. It was on that basis that Thomas Jefferson called himself a Christian. De Tocqueville presented a step by step thought process that led to that conclusion. First, Christianity was accepted by everyone without question. Then he defined the philosophical basis of Christianity that all Americans agreed on, which was a description of the various elements of Natural Law, summed up in the statement that “in all operations of the mind, each American appeals to the individual exercise of his own understanding alone.” Then he described the hold on the public mind that those beliefs held. He was fascinated by the way that Americans made no distinction between Natural Law and Christian morals. It wasn’t that way in Europe. He presents American Christianity as the underlying belief system manifested in the Constitution, and the American belief that the Constitution would not work without that foundation because Americans at the time felt that without the Christian morals, the system would be quickly corrupted by human greed.

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    • August 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm
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      True… I’ve read Locke, de Tocqueville, Montesquieu and the others in that vein (way back in my Poli Sci days at the University of Arizona)…

      My concern is that there is a fundamental difference between those who subscribe to “Christian” (Judeo-Christian; Biblical) principles and morals and those whom you and I would consider to actually be Christian. Muslims consider Jesus (“Isa”) to be a messenger of God, their second most important prophet, second only to Mohammed; Buddhists consider Jesus to be a Buddha; to the Hindus He is “Ishu”, a divine person, a Sadhu, a holy man; many Jews today are reclaiming Jesus as an orthodox rabbi; even many agnostics and atheists hold Him and His teachings in high regard. But none of these believe in the full story of Jesus: that is the Son of God; one person of the Holy Trinity; that He performed miracles; that He died on the Cross and then rose on the third day; that He ascended to Heaven in physical form; and that today He is seated at the right hand of God in Heaven. Therefore, none of these are “Christian” in the way that you and I mean when we use that term.

      When Thomas Jefferson called himself a Christian, he knew how his audience would interpret this and he also knew that he didn’t mean it at all in the same way that they did. In this respect, his claim was a smokescreen; he meant to deceive the American people. Jefferson was not a Christian in the way that most Americans were: When he said that he was a “Christian”, what he really meant was that he believed in the teachings and philosophy of a very human person named Jesus. One proof is the Jefferson Bible: Thomas Jefferson went to great lengths to communicate his version of Jesus by carefully cutting out any and all mention of miracles and the divine from the Gospels and recompiling those scriptures into a very abridged version that included only Jesus’ moral teachings. Jefferson was not a Christian, whether he called himself one or not.

      My concern in all of this is that many teachers today (David Barton is one that comes to mind) are arguing that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, etc., were Christian based on anecdotal evidence that simply doesn’t jibe with reality. Our primary Founding Fathers were not Christian. And while the founding documents that they produced that form the basis of our nation may be Biblically-based – and, therefore, arguably preferable in every way to live under than any other system out there – it is dishonest (sorry, strong word, I know) to attach a “Christian” label to them.

      All that said, does it matter so much? Christianity is not a nation or a political system; it’s not even supposed to be a religion. As Christians, we should thank God that we live in a country that is so compatible with our values and that gives us a good platform – arguably better than in any other country on earth – to live our faith and to spread it out into the rest of the world. And as Christians, I believe that we should fight as hard as we can (through prayer, through our lifestyles, through our voting, etc.) to keep our nation as compatible with our faith as possible. We may be losing ground, but we should never give up the fight!

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      • August 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm
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        Won’t argue with any of that. I think my point is essentially the same as yours. The term “Christian”, as it was used two hundred years ago, mostly didn’t sync with the modern evangelical definition of the term, though in many cases it did, far more cases than most people today are willing to acknowledge, but the sense in which it should influence political involvement today is generally not represented by evangelicals. It very much concerned how people acted toward each other. In that sense, I don’t think Jefferson was being deceptive, however. When he made that statement, it was in a private letter, and I think he genuinely believed it, though you and I would never consider him Christian in the way we use the word.

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        • August 14, 2012 at 8:47 am
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          Oh! I don’t know why I thought that Jefferson had claimed to be a Christian publicly… I think you’re right: He sincerely considered himself to be an adherent of Christian principles; he simply believed that all of the other stuff – Jesus’ divinity, His resurrection, etc. – were silly, made-up superstitions. So, yes, he was no doubt sincere in his beliefs. Can’t knock him for that…

          Oh, well, every time I try to disagree with you about something, it turns out that we don’t really disagree so much after all… Which should be far scarier to you than it is for me…

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          • August 14, 2012 at 9:22 am
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            Scarier? I just consider what a fine and intelligent fellow you are.

  • September 14, 2012 at 10:35 pm
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    Various Rights were a common topic in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Specifically, Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ and Locke’s ‘Treatise on Government’. For an interesting compare and contrast, see Locke versus Hobbes . Although they were both social contract theorists, they had very different perspectives. Basically, Locke thought men have natural rights by the very nature of their being, while Hobbes thought you concede your rights to the government in return for order in society. This raises the interesting question, and maybe more to the point, of Natural and Legal Rights . Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are natural Rights, or inalienable – that which is inherent and cannot be given away, while freedom of speech and the right to bear arms, such as in the Bill of Rights, are legal rights. As Justice Robert Jackson declared, “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” ~ West Virginia State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943). Interestingly, the Bill of Rights implicitly legally protected only white men, and excluded American Indians too – A big mistake by the Founding Father’s. Nevertheless, it seems important to know the context whenever Rights are mentioned.

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    • September 15, 2012 at 9:34 am
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      I haven’t read Hobbes, but I know Locke also described giving up some freedoms to government in exchange for protection of the rest. The problem comes when generations pass and government grows. The bigger it gets, the more of the rights it tries to assume, until the Bill of Rights no longer means much. Your quote from Justice Robert Jackson is interesting. Given the depravity of human nature, I don’t think it’s possible to completely withdraw any subjects from political controversy.

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