Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Biased Opinion - The United States Is Not Built on a Religious Foundation

There is a strain of thought floating about that the United States was founded upon a bedrock of religious principles (almost always asserted to be Christian principles) and that the Framers of the Constitution never meant for religion to be excluded from government. It is a proposition that is attractive to a lot of religious people. The primary problem with this strain of thought is that it is almost entirely unsupportable.

The argument rests on a foundation built from some fairly slender threads, and requires something of a misreading of these threads to work at all. The fundamental problem religious advocates have to overcome is that the U.S. Constitution, the foundational document of the country, doesn't mention "God", "Jesus", or a "Creator". The document only mentions "Lord" once in the date at the end of the document, phrasing the date as the "Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven", which is clearly not an invocation of religion but rather a commonly understood way to express a date. (There are a lot of things that are not in the U.S. Constitution that people claim are there).

The document only mentions religion twice - and both references are negative. First, Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for holding office. Second, the First Amendment contains the famous Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses that states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Clearly there isn't much direct support in the U.S. Constitution, so the advocates who claim that the U.S. was founded on religious principles have to turn to some pretty vapor thin claims.

The basic argument usually runs something like this: the Declaration of Independence says "[w]e hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.", and later makes an appeal to the "Supreme Judge" and seeks the "blessings of divine Providence". This, plus the assertion that the framers were deeply religious men is used as the basis for the claim that the United States is, in fact, built on a religious foundation. Sometimes you also see a claim that the preamble of the U.S. Constitution implements these ideas by stating that it is intended to (among other things) "secure the Blessing of Liberty", with the claim that the "blessings" must obviously be blessings from God. This argument is ill-conceived and not very convincing.

 The initial flaw in this argument is that the Declaration of Independence, as brilliant a work of rhetoric as it is, is not any part of the law. It is, at best, an aspirational document. Nothing in the Declaration has any legal weight behind it. Citing it in a legal proceeding would likely get you laughed at. Secondly, the statements concerning unalienable rights have to be read in the context of the philosophical thinking of the time. Compare, for example, the "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" line penned by Thomas Jefferson with the similar statement written by Jefferson's intellectual ally George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights:

"That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Both of these very similar statements justifying the reason for government are built upon arguments made by John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government, an expression of the philosophical thinking described as "natural law". In fact, both Mason and Jefferson's lines are rough paraphrases of a statement made by John Locke in his "A Letter Concerning Toleration" written in 1689 in which he states "[c]ivil interest I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things . . ." Locke built his theory upon natural law, asserting "[t]he state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it", and further adopting the stance that the law of nature is reason.

Although natural law has been adopted by some religious traditions, asserting that as God is the fountainhead of nature, all natural law is derived from God, in its raw form natural law does not rely upon a divine being as its source. Instead, natural law is supposed to be derived purely from human reason, and in most formulations, rejects an external divine source out of hand. The line grasped at by those asserting a religious foundation for the United States is in actuality an assertion of the supremacy of human reason over revealed wisdom. Locke's political theory was founded on the idea of the social contract. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature was built upon reason and tolerance. When left to their natural state, Locke believed that all people were equal and independent, and had a natural right to defend their “Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions", clearly the antecedent to the phrases used by Mason and Jefferson. Locke assumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. Note that this theory is devoid of reference to God or religion, but relies entirely upon human reason as a basis for government.

Further, imagining that Jefferson would make an appeal to divine authority as the source of human rights stretches credulity. Jefferson was openly hostile towards organized religion, and though he didn't come out directly and say it, Jefferson seems to have harbored some atheistic leanings. Just a small selection of Jefferson's quotes reveals his thoughts:

"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear."

"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes."

"The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: And such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."

"As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us."

"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart."

These quotes should lay to rest any assertion that Jefferson had any kind of God bearing any resemblance to the God touted by most "America is a Christian nation" advocates in mind when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. I don't see how anyone could look at Jefferson's collected writings and think, even for a moment, that he would look favorably upon the efforts of people like Pat Robertson in their attempts to mix religion into government. Jefferson also wrote a revised version of the Bible in which he removed all miraculous and mystical elements that has come to be called The Jefferson Bible. And, of course, there is the famous letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in which Jefferson declares that the Constitution erects a wall to separate church and state:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."

It is kind of humorous to see Jefferson's text in the Declaration of Independence cited by "Christian nation" advocated in favor of their idea that the United States is a Christian nation, but then see those same people usually turn around and decry the opinions Jefferson expressed in the Danbury letter and other writings. But I suppose that when you are rewriting history, coherence sometimes has to be cast overboard to make one's case.

Of course, Jefferson was only the primary author of the Declaration, the document was passed by the entire Continental Congress, so one could try to argue that many other legislators present were, in fact, voting in favor of a document that implemented a religious form of government. But the evidence for this is fairly thin. Most of the legislators that we know a substantial amount about were deists at most, and almost all were enamoured of the Enlightenment era theories of natural law that downplayed or outright rejected the active role that any divine being had in engendering natural law. The U.S. government, far from being built on a religious foundation, is clearly a vast experiment in bringing Locke's theories concerning government to fruition. Plus, as noted before, the Declaration isn't law, and is not the foundational document of our government. The U.S. Constitution is both.

As most people vaguely remember from high school history class, the Constitution wasn't the first governing document of the United States either. Eleven years separate the signing of the Declaration of Independence from the drafting and signing of the U.S. Constitution. During much of those intervening years, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Interestingly, the Articles include a fairly direct statement concerning God near the end of the document:

"And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union."

So it is pretty clear that the legislators of the time knew how to make a direct reference to God in a governing document. But when the delegates convened for the Constitutional Convention that resulted in the current U.S. Constitution, they didn't see fit to include any similar statement in their new document despite having clear guidelines as to how this would be done. God is, in fact, notably absent form the document unless one inserts God as the originator of the "blessings of Liberty" in the preamble, and as we have seen already, this is an assertion that runs counter to the Lockean leanings of the founders. This absence of God in the Constitution wasn't an oversight, but clearly a deliberate omission. Highlighting this, consider that the delegates had the question of God put in front of them pretty early on in the process when Benjamin Franklin (one of only six people to be present for the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution1) proposed that the delegates open the Convention with a prayer suggesting that "henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business." The delegates not only did not adopt this proposal, they declined to even bring it to a vote, immediately adjourned for the day, and the subject was never raised again. One can only reasonably conclude after this incident that the absence of God from the text of the Constitution was not an oversight, but a purposeful omission.

And soon after the Constitution was implemented, the government made a strong statement that it was not founded as a Christian nation. The occasion was a peace and trade agreement between the United States and Muslim leaders in North Africa. The negotiations were conducted during the presidency of George Washington, and the final document, known as the Treaty of Tripoli, was approved by the Senate and signed by John Adams, the second president. This treaty clearly states that the ". . . Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion . . . ." In short, we have two of the founding fathers making a pretty strong statement that there is no religious foundation underpinning the structure of the Federal government. It seems fairly clear that recent attempts to suggest otherwise are simply wrong.

1 The six men were: Robert Morris, Ben Franklin, George Clymer, James Wilson, George Read, and Roger Sherman.

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