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Non-Interventionism as a Constitutional Principle

The Constitution of the United States is very clearly a non-interventionist document. The noninterventionist premise is apparent, not only in its various articles, but in the doctrine of express powers also.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Position Paper No. 232
(Reprinted from This Independent Republic, Thoburn Press, 1978)

The Constitution of the United States is very clearly a non-interventionist document. The noninterventionist premise is apparent, not only in its various articles, but in the doctrine of express powers also. Whatever the Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution may be, it is clear that the intention of the framers, and the language of the document itself, is the language of express powers.

Let us examine, specifically and briefly, some of these aspects of non-interventionism. First of all, Amendment IX re-enforces this already implicit concept by explicitly prohibiting federal intervention in the self-government of the people. The premise of this is a concept of government very different from that prevalent today. Government is primarily self-government, and the civil order is but one form of government among the many, which includes family, church, school, society, and voluntary associations.

Second, intervention in the self-government of the states and, by implication, of their constituent units, the counties, is forbidden in Amendment X. Accordingly, internal improvements were long considered unconstitutional by many presidents and legislators. Amendment XIV has been used to nullify this concept, but the original intent and the language of that amendment were not so construed. The current welfare economy is, of course, interventionist in essence and alien to this constitutional provision.

Third, interventionism in foreign affairs, decried by Washington in his Farewell Address, was written into the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, makes possible universal military conscription, but for the stated purposes only. These stated purposes are (1) to execute the laws of the Union, (2) to suppress insurrections, and (3) to repel invasions. Conscripted men thus could not be used in foreign wars and until 1917, this was the law of the land. This provision was rendered a nullity by the actions of Wilson and the Supreme Court.1 Nonetheless, if the Constitution be regarded as authoritative, the burden of illegality with respect to subsequent foreign policy rests on the federal government.

Non-interventionism was thus, as we have seen, a constitutional provision with respect to persons, states, and foreign wars. It was, fourth, a principle with respect to religious policy, Amendment I being designed to prevent the intervention of the federal union into religious matters, either to establish a federal policy or to interfere in state practices.

Fifth, non-intervention with respect to money was imposed on the states as well as the federal union in Article I, Sections 8 and 10. The premise of Andrew Jackson’s constitutional struggle against the second U. S. Bank was this belief. Since the Civil War, and especially since the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, this principle has been by-passed. The Constitution had been fought, before ratification, as a hard-money document. Its opponents saw clearly that paper money had no legal standing or lawful place under it.2

Sixth, the Monroe Doctrine, December 2, 1823, made two fundamental applications of this principle of non-interventionism: (1) the nonintervention by foreign powers in the Americas, and (2) nonintervention by the United States in the affairs of Europe. Both aspects are now by-passed.

Seventh, the Polk Doctrine, announced on December 2, 1845, developed this principle further by means of a three-point platform:

  1. The people of this continent have the right to decide their own destiny.
  2. We can never consent that European powers shall interfere to prevent such a union (of an independent state with the U. S.) because it might disturb the "balance of power" which they may desire to maintain upon this continent.
  3. No future European colony or dominion shall without our consent be planted on any part of the North American continent.3

Since the Russo-Japanese War, however, the U. S. has been extensively involved in balance of power politics.

Eighth, interventionism with respect to property has become the rule rather than the exception. In various ways and by many federal agencies, property is subjected to federal intervention daily. One such instance is urban renewal. The Fifth Amendment declares: "No person shall be…deprived of…property…without due process of law, and nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Urban renewal condemns private property for private use. In 1954, in Berman v. Parker, the Supreme Court made this possible by ruling: "The concept of the public welfare is broad and inclusive…The values it represents are spiritual as well as physical, esthetic as well as monetary." Urban renewal, by taking property from some for the profit of others, has thus been conducive to the oligarchic development, which the founding fathers feared.

The basis of this change from non-interventionism to interventionism in constitutional theory is a sociological approach to the Constitution. Its original intent is supplanted by present demands. As Kik has observed, "The Supreme Court is limited to the intent of those who composed the First Amendment. Otherwise, we are no longer under a constitutional government."4 In terms of this new mode of interpretation, it has been repeatedly noted, we are less and less under the Constitution and increasingly under the Supreme Court.

The roots of this trend must be sought, however, elsewhere than in the Supreme Court, which to a large extent mirrors a cultural phenomenon. Its origins are religious. Even as the origins of the republic were in Christian faith, so its decline is rooted in developments within the life of the church. In the past century, churches have steadily developed a principle of interpretation which, not surprisingly, has taken root in society at large, and in the courts. The Bible and the various creeds have been interpreted, not in terms of their original intent, but in terms of contemporary science, politics, economics, and cultural mores. The original meaning has been clearly suppressed or by-passed to make way for modern requirements. Instead of dropping the creed or Bible, its authority has been used to justify new contents by means of interpretation. The conclusion is a simple one: If men deal so with the things of God, why not so with the Constitution? Is there then cause for complaint if the Supreme Court applies modern religious methodology to law? The issue, thus, is basically a loss of character as a consequence of a loss of faith. The Constitution still stands, basically the same document despite certain amendments, and its character has changed little in the past fifty years. The interpretation thereof has changed, reflecting a now deeply rooted revolution in American faith and the newer approach will certainly be reflected at the polls and in the courts, but it will be settled first of all in the religious decisions of men. Inescapably, history is the outworking of religious commitments.


1. John W. Burgess, Recent Changes in American Constitutional Theory (New York, 1933), 59ff.

2. George Bancroft, History of the Formation of the Constitution, II (n. p., n. d.), 132, 291, 313, 380, 408.

3. James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, IV ( Washington, 1904), 398f., see also Richard B. Morris, ed., Encyclopedia of American History (New York, 1961, rev. ed.), 192f.

4. J. Marcellus Kik, The Supreme Court and Prayer in the Public School (Philadelphia, 1963), 27. See David Leslie Hoggan, Conflict in 1937: The Supreme Court, the Federal System, and the Constitution.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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