Biblical origins of American Political Philosophy

A Look at the Philosophical roots of American Constitutional Republicanism
by
John A. Sterling

The United States of America was not born in a vacuum nor did it emerge from a single spasm of political or social reaction. The nation was, as Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg, "conceived in liberty" long before the war with England for independence. What philosophical or historical writings influenced America's founding? (see Development of Western Political Thought) Although the Magna Carta (1215) is considered by many scholars to be first written acknowledgement of the principles which would appear later in our U.S. Constitution, this author's research has led him to conclude that the written origins predate the Magna Charta by at least three thousand years. Further, the roots of American Constitutional Republicanism are less philosophical than theological. When one searches for underlying principles of self-government, it is not difficult to trace the historical origins back several thousand years- to the ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament of the Bible.

BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS FOR CIVIL GOVERNMENT

The idea of covenant relationships between people and between God is as old as Genesis. This subject is given depth and perspective in Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel, by Daniel Elazar (Transaction Publishers,1995). Although a somewhat laborious read, the book details events in the Old Testament that can be seen as theo-political rather than purely theological.

As the roots of the Christian faith trace to Genesis 1:1, so do the roots of Covenant polity. "Politically, a covenant involves a coming together (con-gregation) of basically equal humans who consent with one another through a morally binding pact supported by a transcendent power, establishing with the partners a new framework or setting them on the road to a new task that can only be dissolved by mutual agreement of all the parties to it." 2.

In the 1990's, we heard much about the new "Contract with America" from freshmen representatives in congress. There seemed to be a sense that the "old" contract was in need of overhaul. One did not hear much about WHAT the old contract was about, or in what ways it was deemed deficient. We heard only that a "new" one was mandated by the people who seemed to be reacting to the liberal policies of the Clinton Administration.

In legal terms, a contract is an expression by two or more parties of an intention to be bound by the terms of an agreement. It is assumed that the parties to a contract are more or less equal as to their power to negotiate for themselves favorable terms. To avoid future allegations of breach, the contract should be written in unambiguous language so that much later, if a conflict arises, a disinterested third party might examine the language of the document, discern the intent of the parties, and determine whether the parties are acting in conformity with their original intentions. The Founding Fathers viewed the U.S. Constitution as the written declaration of their intent to "form a more perfect Union" in accordance with expressly stated objectives. 3

The Bible teaches that a covenant (constitution) is a tool of God for men to establish and "regularize" (make more regular) their relationships with one another AND with God. This concept is modeled by the Jewish people in the Old Testament and by the teachings of the Torah. Further, if our political institutions follow the biblical pattern, they will emerge as federations of people (tribes) that are instituted and reaffirmed by God's covenant. Accordingly, they will function with a sense of unity and purpose, binding themselves in a common constitution and common laws.

John Locke (1632-1704), an English Philosopher, Physician, Historian and Political Scientist wrote that, in a "state of nature," (without any artificial institutions such as government) men would reasonably acquiesce to the institution of some government in order to avoid self-destruction. In other words, our natural "sinful" state can be avoided if people realize their natural tendencies and trade some of their absolute individual power in exchange for the protection of society. Locke believed that this "reasonable" exchange was not only possible, but that it was the design of Almighty God. Government, thus deriving its authority from the consent of the governed, is empowered to execute judgment on behalf of the people. (See Romans 13:1-7)

NOTE* Locke was widely read by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution and is credited with being the philosopher most widely quoted in the 1760's and 1770's. In fact, he was one of the top three political philosophers most often quoted during the half-century from 1760 until 1805. 4.

A GOVERNMENT OF LAWS, NOT OF MEN

It should be self-evident that when left to their own devices, absent the restraining influence of external pressure (law, morality, pressure to conform), men will permit their standards of conduct to disintegrate. The founders, although not all Christians, did all seem to embrace the notion that the heart of man was predisposed towards evil and therefore needed the external restraint of government. They uniformly held that the foundations for our liberty, and the constitution which guarantees the same, have been laid by God through a covenant with those who will hearken to Him. English law during this period was not, by and large, codified (written down) but rather, was "proclaimed" by the judiciary. Even absent legislative prohibitions, however, the law was commonly known, and observed. It was "common law."

Sir William Blackstone wrote his best-selling Commentaries on the Law of England from the perspective that Biblical principles form the foundation of all legitimate law. No legislative body nor monarch nor judge may usurp the authority of that divine law. Judges were to reach their decisions based upon what Blackstone refers to as "general custom" which he understood to be reflective of Christian tenets. He said that judges were, "the depositories of the laws-the living oracles, who must decide in all cases of doubt, and who are bound by an oath to decide according to the law of the land." 8. The overriding assumptions, and the reason why the "common law" was effective, was that the rules of conduct were generally accepted as true and the authority of the court to decide matters of law was generally unquestioned.

Blackstone believed that the Bible contained the revealed Law of God and that the Revealed Law was entirely consistent with Natural Law. He said that human laws were only "declaratory of, and act in subordination to.." God's Law. Any act (law) of man which was contrary to God's Law would be "destructive of man's real happiness, and therefore, the law of nature forbids it." 5.

In the 2000 Presidential election, the final outcome was to be decided in the State of Florida. The race between (then)Texas Governor George W. Bush and then Vice-President Al Gore was the closest presidential race in history, the popular vote count finally tipping to Bush by a razor-thin 600-vote margin. The Democrats challenged the results in court and the Republicans defended their win on the basis of "the Rule of Law." It was fascinating (and scary) to hear both sides use the same terminology while imploring the press, the public, and the judiciary to apply the "Rule of Law." To the Democrats, the rule of law meant that the outcome of this issue (or any issue) could only be decided in a court of law where the judges could achieve "justice" (as defined by the Democrats) regardless of the rules. The Republicans, however, understood that "the Rule of Law" meant the judges were bound by the rules in place at the time the election was held because that's what all parties agreed to at the outset. In other words, changing the rules after the game was already played, just because the loser didn't like the outcome, was inherently unfair and precisely what the concept of "Rule of Law" was meant to prevent. It is astonishing that so many people could not grasp the fundamental difference in these two starkly contrasting points of view.

Blackstone, Locke, Burke, Madison, Jefferson and other influential writers of the 18th century understood that for self-government to work, all people must submit to the "Rule of Law" and that law is not a creation of man but rather, a revelation of God. Without such a philosophical assumption, there will be no consistency or predictability in the law and it will work to the ultimate demise of man's happiness. A "Law of Men" is one where the powers-that-be can change the law on a whim. In that case, outcomes are not predictable and justice will seldom (if ever) be served. Whether originating in a legislative body, a judge, or a monarch, the law must reflect the Character and Nature of God or it will be arbitrary, unenforceable, and ultimately, despised and ignored.

Every national, political, or social subgroup has a system of law. Certain rules of behavior which are generally accepted as true will serve to unify a group more or less. But without the commitment to the principles of law and a willingness to put those principles higher than our own self-interests, no nation can be healthy for long. "Law is more than the sum of all the statutes, regulations, constitutional provisions, and judicial interpretations currently in force. What gives them all coherence, and the public support without which they could not be enforced, is that they are expressions of an underlying notion that we live by rules rather than either arbitrary edicts or anarchy." 6. It is precisely to this principle that George Washington spoke in his farewell address on 19 Sept 1796, when he said," 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 forbids us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." 7.

Self-government can only be effective when the "self" is brought into submission to "the law of nature and nature's God". If an individual is unable to control his own natural impulses, he is certainly unfit to govern others (1 Tim 3:1-13). Our founding fathers completely understood the corrupting influence of power and set up the system of checks and balances in the government through the separation of political powers. First, they recognized that the government must be powerful enough to restrain the evil impulses of the masses. A system of government that is too weak to restrain the masses will eventually degenerate into anarchy and chaos. The designers of the Constitution saw this happen under the Articles of Confederation. But they also recognized that rulers possess sinful natures. Therefore, rulers cannot be trusted with absolute power. Rulers will use power to enhance themselves and oppress the masses. As a result, they will become tyrants." 8.

Without a belief in, and a high commitment to, the fundamental biblical principles acknowledged by the founding fathers, the form of government we ultimately adopt is of little importance. It is not the form that sustains us but the spirit of the people as they embrace the principles.

Further, these principles are not for sale to the highest bidder nor can they be altered by the majority vote of successive generations who may have lost sight of the original vision. One of the great dangers of democracy is that it will destroy itself once the electorate learns that "the government" will pay the tab for their excesses.

BIBILCAL PRINCIPLES OF JUSTICE
Principles basic to our U.S. constitution are found in Deut 16:18 - 17:13 where we discover the establishment of a civil government which exists primarily to administer justice. The Bible gives us rather explicit guidance on basic rules of adjudication, rules of judicial procedure, rules of evidence, rules for capital punishment, and guidelines for the establishment of an appellate system.

As we study the biblical foundations for principles of authority and justice, the following points for a recurrent theme: 1.) In all forms, the key focus of covenant is relationship and; 2.) the people or groups whose relationships are being structured by a covenant are intrinsically prone to do evil and; 3.) the political result of such a covenant must balance two "faces" of the human relationship, namely, power (who gets what, when, and how) and justice (who should get what, when and how).

From the Old Testament through the early writings of the founders, it is clear that a primary function of civil government is the punishment of transgressors. By covenant with God civil authorities are committed to be agents of God's law by consent of the people. The only legitimate authority that government can claim is that which comes from God and is recognized by those being governed. (Ro 13.1-5) The founding fathers clearly recognized that justice and civil authority are legitimate extensions of Divine Law (Natural law) through a covenant relationship with Almighty God.

I recommend Dr. John Eidsmoe's excellent book Christianity and the Constitution as a well-documented source of the Biblical principles found in American government. He lists fifteen biblical principles that are either derived from, or at least compatible with, Christianity and the Bible. They include:
1. A belief in God and His providence.
2. A belief that God's truth is revealed in the Bible.
3. A belief that human reason is a God-given powerto be used to learn the truth.
4. A belief that man is neither perfect not perfectible and that government institutions must take that into account.
5. A belief that God has ordained human government to restrain the sinful nature of man.
6. A belief that God has established certain physical laws as well as moral laws for the governance of mankind.
7. A belief that God has revealed his moral law through scriptures and that His truth is discoverable through human reason and human conscience.
8. A belief that human law must correspond to the divine law. Human laws that contradict God's law are non-binding and are to be resisted.
9. A belief that the revealed law and the law of nature include unalienable human rights which include life, liberty, and property.
10. A belief that the revealed law and the law of nature form the basis for the law of nations (international law) and this law of nations includes the right of a nation to defend itself against aggressors.
11. A belief that governments are formed by covenant (or compact) of the people in order to safeguard human rights.
12. A belief that governments have only such powers as are delegated to them by the people in the said covenants or compacts and that when governments attempt to usurp powers not so delegated, they become illegitimate and are to be resisted.
13. A belief that, human nature being what it is, rulers tend to usurp more and more power if given the opportunity.
14. A belief that the best way to prevent governments form usurping power is to separate their powers and functions into legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
15. A belief that, human nature being what it is, a free enterprise economy is the best way to give people an incentive to produce and develop national prosperity. 9.


Endnotes

1. Richard L. Perry and John C. Cooper, (eds) Sources of Our Liberties, William S. Hein & Co.,Inc., Buffalo, NY, 1991

2. Daniel J. Elezar, Covenant & Polity in Biblical Israel,Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N. J.,1995

3. Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

4.John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution,Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Mi.,1987

5. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Law of England, vol 1, Section 2

. 6. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed, BasicBooks, NY, 1995

7. Norman Cousins (ed.), In God We Trust, Harper and Brothers,NY,1958

8. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Law of England, vol 1, pg 69

9. Eidsmoe

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Questions or comments? E-Mail me at: Jsterling@lawandliberty.org