During the twentieth century, various secular writers have asserted that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution were secular-minded men whose goal was to shake off the superstitions of the past (i.e., Christianity) and initiate a new godless era for mankind. A few Christian writers have bought this argument, some because they too believe government should be secular, others because they believe the Framers should have gone further in establishing an overtly Christian republic.
How, then, should we evaluate the Constitution today? Is it a secular document, a Christian document, or a hybrid document? My answer is: The US Constitution reflects the temper of the time in which it was written, a time in which Christianity was the dominant religion and philosophy, but also a time in which some strains of Enlightenment philosophy existed in America as well.
A Christian Constitution?
But first let us consider, what is the defining feature that makes a constitution Christian? Consider two possibilities. (1) A constitution could begin "In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen," and expressly declare, "This is a Christian nation," and from there on consist of political principles that are utterly indifferent to or even hostile to Christian values. Or, (2) a constitution might contain no express affirmation of Christianity, but nevertheless consist of political principles that are consistent with Christian values. Which of these would be the "Christian" constitution? I would argue that the Christian values which underlie a constitution are more important than an express affirmation of Christianity in determining whether the Constitution is Christian in character.
Those who claim ours is a "godless Constitution" ignore the last sentence of Article VII, the Attestation Clause:
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names....
Some try to dismiss the Attestation Clause as a meaningless formality. But just as a last will and testament is invalid without the attestation, so the Attestation Clause and the signatures which follow give the Constitution its legal validity. And the clause is important for two other reasons:
(1) Unlike the leaders of the French Revolution who repudiated Christianity and the Gregorian calendar and established a new calendar that began with their Revolution, the Framers of our Constitution had no hesitation about recognizing the birth of Jesus Christ as the central event of human history. Significantly, England had adopted the Gregorian calendar only a quarter of century earlier.
(2) By their reference to the twelfth year of independence, the Framers incorporated by reference the Declaration of Independence and its ideals: Government based on the laws of nature and of nature's God, equality based on our having been created by God, unalienable God-given rights, and government by the consent of the governed. The Declaration and the Constitution must be read together to grasp their meaning. The Declaration established the nation; the Constitution established the government. The Declaration set forth the nation's ideals or founding principles; the Constitution provided a practical mechanism by which those ideals can be realized and preserved in a society of imperfect people.
Natural law and natural rights were a cornerstone of the Framers' thought. Practically every American of that time, from the strictest Puritan to the most radical Deist, believed that God had ordained natural laws and natural rights. Alexander Hamilton expressed the views of the emerging nation when he wrote in 1775:
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. ... Good and wise men, in all ages...have supposed that the Deity, from the relations we stand in to Himself, and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institutions whatsoever.1
This higher law of God both empowered government and limited government. God ordained human government and gave it authority to rule, but that government may not act contrary to God's laws or in violation of the rights God has given to man. When the Framers referred to "Offences against the Law of Nations" in Article I, Section 8, Clause 10, they understood the term as used by Christian writers such as Vitoria, Suarez, Grotius, Vattel, and Pufendorf, as part of the higher law of God.
Two more factors contributed to the Framers' view of limited government. The first was their respective states' role in the new federal union. Each had been sent to the Convention by his respective state, and those states were wary about ceding their powers to a central government.
The second was their view of human nature. Probably the most common reason constitutions and political systems fail to work in practice is that they are based on a faulty view of the nature of man. Marxist ideology holds that human nature is perfectible through a dictatorship of the proletariat as it follows the revolution and prepares people for the classless, stateless society, and the socialist workers' paradise and when human nature proves intransigent, as it always does, the dictatorship of the proletariat invariably turns into a reign of terror.
John Adams declared that human nature had not changed "since the Garden of Eden," and consequently, "no such passion as a love of democracy, stronger than self-love, or superior to the love of private interest, ever did, or ever can prevail in the minds of the citizens in general," for "no love of equality, at least since Adam's fall, ever existed in human nature."2 And later, surveying the wreckage of the French Revolution, he wrote to Jefferson:
Let me ask you very seriously, my friend, where are now in 1813 the perfection and perfectibility in human nature? Where is now the progress of the human mind? Where is the amelioration of society? Where the augmentation of human comforts? Where the diminution of human pains and miseries?3
James Madison, who had studied for the ministry at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and stayed after graduation to study Hebrew under Rev. Witherspoon, summarized the political implications of one's view of human nature in The Federalist No. 51:
The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of the government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
This view of human nature, based both on a Biblical view of sin and their own realistic observations, had two implications: (1) It meant that people cannot be trusted to live in a state of anarchy; government must have sufficient authority to preserve law and order. (2) Those in authority have the same sinful nature as everyone else and, therefore, they cannot be trusted with too much power.
The question facing the Convention delegates, then, was this: How do we give government enough power to govern effectively, but at the same time restrain that power so government does not become tyrannical and oppressive? The answer, embodied in the Constitution of the United States, was to limit and diffuse power, or, as Madison said in Federalist No. 51, "Let ambition check ambition."
Formula for Freedom
One might summarize this as The Framers' Five-Fold Formula for Freedom:
(1) Give the federal government only limited, delegated powers. As the 10th Amendment makes clear, the federal government has only those powers which the people or the states through the Constitution have delegated to it; all powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people.
(2) Separate the powers of government vertically among the federal, state, and local governments, and horizontally among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
(3) Enable the various levels and branches of government to check and balance each other. Each level or branch, jealously guarding its own powers, checks the powers of the others, and thus preserves the liberties of the people by keeping the other levels and branches within their appointed limits.
(4) Protect individual rights from abuse or usurpation, even if those abuses or usurpations are supported by a majority of the people. The Framers feared democracy as mob rule and the tyranny of the majority over the minority. They established instead a constitutional republic in which the majority generally governs but the minority has rights that even the majority may not take away.
(5) Responsibility through religion. The Framers knew that a free society was possible only if the people possess a civic virtue that enables them to exercise self-discipline, obey the laws even when the policeman isn't watching, and place the interest of their family, their community, and their country above their own. If people can't control themselves, government must control them. But man doesn't have that kind of civic virtue within himself. Therefore, that kind of virtue must be supplied, and the only source from whence it could come was religion, a term which the Framers generally used interchangeably with Christianity. As George Washington said in his Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. ...[R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality may prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
This does not mean they favored a national church. Much like the ancient Hebrews, who placed priesthood or religious authority in the tribe of Levi and the kingship or civil authority in the tribe of Judah, the Framers favored a separation of church and state in the proper sense of the word. But they favored an institutional separation. They never intended to separate government from God's authority or to separate law and policy from Biblical values.
All of these concepts make good sense, but are they Christian? Certainly many of them may be found in non-Christian value systems, but that is not where the Framers found them. The Framers were mostly professing Christians: 28 of the 55 Convention delegates were Episcopalian; 8 were Presbyterian; 7 were Congregationalist; 2 were Reformed; 2 were Lutheran; 2 were Methodist; and 2 were Catholic. At least 51 of the 55 were affiliated with Christian churches, and the vast majority of these came from churches of the Reformed tradition.4
And they looked to the Bible for their inspiration. A study of the writings of leading American political figures from 1760 to 1805 reveals that 34% of all quotations found in their writings come from the Bible. Of the remainder, the largest number come from Baron Charles Montesquieu (a devout Catholic), Sir William Blackstone (a devout Anglican), and John Locke (not always orthodox, but essentially in the Christian camp).5
No wonder, then, the constitutional republic the Framers devised so closely resembles the old Hebrew republic a confederation of twelve tribes, each governed by judges, united under the law of God, and with no king in Israel but God Himself.
1. Alexander Hamilton, "The Farmer Refuted," 1775; quoted by Nathan Schachner, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Barnes & Co. , 1961), 38, 430.
2. John Adams, quoted by Gilbert Chinard, Honest John Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co. , 1961), 214-215.
3. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1813; quoted by Page Smith, John Adams (Garden City: Doubleday , 1963), II: 1112.
4. M. E. Bradford, A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution (Plymouth, MA: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1982), iv-v.
5. Donald S. Lutz, "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth Century American Political Thought," American Political Science Review 18 (1984), 189-97.
- John Eidsmoe
John Eidsmoe is Professor of Constitutional Law at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, Faulkner University, Montgomery, Alabama. He is also a retired Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and an Adjunct Professor at Birmingham Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations.