Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?
By Michael D. Greaney
Whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation is a question that concerns people probably more than it should. It’s not that the question is unimportant. Asking it, however, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the basis of western civilization: the Aristotelian understanding of the natural law. In the Declaration of Independence, the “legal brief” drafted by Thomas Jefferson to justify the American Revolution, the natural law basis for the Revolution and (by extension) that of the new country, is made clear: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
FAITH, REASON, AND THE “CREATOR”
The identity and specific attributes of the noted “Creator” are carefully omitted from the Declaration of Independence. This is understandable on a number of grounds. First, while all the members of the Continental Congress believed in God, it is problematical how each one defined the Supreme Being. By some standards Jefferson himself might not have been considered a Christian. John Carroll from Maryland, a Catholic, belonged to a church subject to legal disabilities and which some groups even today consider non-Christian. Benjamin Franklin’s approach to religion was somewhat equivocal from the point of view of the Established Church. The list could go on.
This leads into the second, and (politically) the most important reason for not specifying any attributes to a Creator that could not be derived from the use of natural reason, that is, the natural law. That there is a Creator, we can discern from the fact that there is a creation, and there can be no effect without a cause. Certain attributes of that Creator can also be known by discerning what, in general, human beings have always accepted as “good.” If a thing is consistent with what the creature has traditionally accepted as good, reason dictates that this must be consistent with the Nature of the Creator, which is reflected onto the creature — a Creator would not contradict His own Nature by creating that which is not good.
When we get into “revelation,” however, we are getting into an area of belief that cannot be proved by natural reason, that is, something that is not manifestly true — subject to scientific or philosophical proof. This is the realm of “faith,” defined as the virtue relating to accepting as true that which is not subject to scientific proof. All religions teach truths that are subject to proof (to natural reason), and not subject to proof (faith).
If a truth is subject to proof, then the civil order — the State — must be in conformity with it, for to be otherwise is to be contrary to reason, and to base society on an untruth. If, on the other hand, a truth is not subject to proof, that is, it relates to faith, then (as far as the civil order is concerned) it is a matter of opinion, of personal belief. Everyone is entitled by natural right — by possession of a morally free will — to hold any opinion as long as it doesn’t harm the holder, other persons, or the common good.
No one has a moral right to be wrong — but if a truth is not subject to a proof by natural reason, then (in civil society), the lack of a moral right to be wrong is “trumped” by the natural right to hold any opinion one chooses, and to be free from coercion in matters of opinion. If someone wishes to worship a rock, a plant, or anything else as a god, he or she is free to do so, even though he or she lacks a moral right to do so, as long as there is no material harm to him- or herself, other people, or the common good. This is because to use the coercive power of the State to force such an individual to worship in a specific way is to violate that person’s morally free will, a profound injustice at the most basic level.
NATURAL — INALIENABLE — RIGHTS
The common good in this context is the network of institutions (rights, customs, traditions) within which human beings acquire and develop virtue, and so develop more fully as human persons. The most important of these institutions, according to political philosophers through the ages, are the natural (inalienable or “absolute”) rights to life, liberty, and access to the means of acquiring and possessing property.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were rebelling against a system that, in their opinion, was unjust. Rights to life, liberty, and (most immediately) private property, were being violated and infringed as a matter of course. One of the more fundamental liberties abused by the British government was freedom of religion — freedom to hold any opinion one wished.
Since the days of the Tudors, Great Britain and Ireland had been burdened with “Established Churches.” That is, religious institutions were legally treated as branches of the government, tax supported, and with religious requirements such as mandatory attendance at services at Christmas and Easter and payment of tithes enforced with the coercive power of the State. Failure to attend services could result in heavy monetary fines or jail time. Non-conformists, such as Catholics and Anabaptists, were viewed as traitors to both God and the State, conveniently merged into one via the recently-introduced theory of the Divine Right of Kings.
Although the penal laws against Non-Conformists were enforced only sporadically (when it was expedient for the establishment), their very existence represented a fundamental change in political philosophy from that of the Roman Republic to which America’s Founding Fathers looked as a model. This is why, for instance, the United States has a “Senate” rather than a “Parliament,” and the “Federalist” style of architecture is an idealization of the Roman classical model. Many of the writers of Revolutionary times took “Roman” pen names, drawing conscious parallels between the founding of the Roman Res Publica with the expulsion of the Tarquin kings, and the events of 4 July 1776 which “expelled” George III as king of the American colonies.
THE STRUCTURE OF SOCIETY
The Romans divided society into three discrete “sub societies,” each one independent of the other, sometimes, from a modern point of view, carrying this separation to ridiculous extremes. These three societies were, in the Roman order of importance, domestic society (the family), religious society (the cults of the gods), and civil society (the State). Each society had its own laws and courts, even its own religion (recall the many references to “household gods”), and none of the societies could interfere with the internal affairs of the others.
Thus, if a Roman father of the old school decided his child had offended him, he could assemble a domestic court with himself as judge, and try and execute the child — and the State could do nothing about it. Similarly, a religious offense was tried in a religious court, and the civil authorities were powerless to interfere.
These differences were softened somewhat with the coming of Christianity, but still maintained throughout the Middle Ages. The first clause of Magna Charta clearly upheld the ancient separation of Church and State into separate-but-equal societies. While sometimes honored more in the breach than in the observance, this separation was a cornerstone of a philosophy of government based on the natural law, and was a key point in the philosophies of Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Ibn Khaldûn, Medieval thinkers who reconciled the thought of Aristotle to the three great “Abrahamic” religions.
One of the effects of the Reformation in Europe was to remove the distinctions between domestic, religious, and civil society. As Sir Robert Filmer, chief theologian of James I Stuart, explained in his book Patriarcha, because Adam was the head of the entire human family, and the king had inherited this headship from Adam, the king was the head of the national family by divine right . . . regardless what the “papists,” who believed in anti-Christian democracy, might say. As head of State, and thus head of all families in the State, the king was also — again by divine right — head of the church.
Filmer’s chief opponent in the pamphlet war that raged over this issue of divine right was Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, canonized as a saint and named a “Doctor of the Church” by Pope Pius XI in 1931. Bellarmine was a Jesuit priest who, in common with Aquinas, maintained that God grants sovereignty not to the “princes of this world,” but to the people. The assembled people then make a grant of sovereignty to their chosen ruler, which grant can be revoked for just cause.
Bellarmine made a couple of mistakes, such as maintaining that the grant of sovereignty was to the collective, rather than to individual people. These errors, however, were in part corrected by a most unusual Founding Father: George Mason of Gunston Hall in Virginia (as well as by Pius XI a century and a half later). Today Mason is renowned as the “Father of the [American] Bill of Rights,” and drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 12 June 1776, from which Thomas Jefferson drew some of his concepts and language for the Declaration of Independence.
Evidence suggests that Mason, the quintessential homebody and a rather reluctant participant in the political process as well as social life in general, read the works of Bellarmine directly, rather than through Algernon Sydney’s admittedly excellent synopsis in the latter’s Discourses on Government, as did the other Founding Fathers. John Locke also mentions Bellarmine in his Treatises on Government, but badly distorted Bellarmine’s positions. Sydney and Montesquieu — author of The Spirit of Laws, a virtual textbook on government used by the Founding Fathers, appear to have had more influence than Locke.
Mason thus ensured, as far as he could, that the new government would be based on principles of natural law. Ironically (Mason himself being an elder in the established Episcopal Church), these natural law principles were best set out in the teachings of the Catholic Church, specifically, in the work of Medieval philosophers such as Aquinas.
UNIVERSAL MORAL PRINCIPLES
The same principles, however, can also be found in the teachings of Judaism, Islam, and even paganism, as a brief foray into the philosophy of Aristotle will reveal. The Catholic Church itself has declared on a number of occasions over the centuries that these principles are not exclusive to any religion. They are, rather, based on human nature itself, and are thus binding on the entire human race, as Jefferson asserted, whether Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or no religion at all.
The problem today is that many people seem unable to differentiate moral principles discernible by natural reason, from religious requirements based on revelation. This may be because the chief teachers of morality through the ages have been religious and, frankly, the quick and easy answer to any question why a student should do something moral is, “Because God said so.” It’s simple to understand . . . and wrong.
No, the reason to obey what one believes are specific commands from God, for example, to go to services on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday is, “God said so.” This is a legitimate reason — if one believes in the particular revelation that commands one to do so. If not, then that revelation has no relevance to how one behaves (except in cases where such behavior harms one’s self, another individual or group, or the common good), unless one thereby interferes with someone else’s natural right to comply with what he or she believes to be God’s command.
The reason not to murder, steal, lie, cheat, and so on, however, is because it is contrary to human nature to do these things. We are able to discern this by observing the behavior of the majority of people throughout history. There are always exceptions, of course, but if we want to know right and wrong with reasonable certainty, we start with what people have gotten into the habit of believing to be right and wrong.
THE SOURCE OF HUMAN NATURE, THE “GOOD”
It just so happens that the major religions believe that the human person was created in God’s image and likeness, and thus His Nature is “reflected” in human nature. Thus (the reasoning goes) what human beings perceive as “good” is probably what God sees as “good.” This, however, is not dependent on any special revelation to the human race, whether the Bible, the Torah, the Q’uran, the Laws of Manu, or any other source of revelation, but on natural reason.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were (more or less) Christian. They therefore framed their understanding of the natural law on which they based the new country in “Christian” terms. It is, in that sense, correct to say that America was founded as a Christian nation.
The same understanding of natural law, however, can also be found in Judaism, Islam, and Paganism, albeit often in somewhat different terms and expressed in different ways and in different applications. It is thus, in the same sense, correct to say that America was founded as a Jewish nation, an Islamic nation, even a Pagan nation — a paradox that no doubt confuses many people.
If by “Christian nation” we mean that the United States was founded by people expressing themselves in Christian terms with a Christian understanding of universal principles applicable to the whole human race, whatever faith they might profess, we are correct.
If, however, we mean that the United States was founded on principles exclusive to the Christian religion, and that other faiths can at best achieve only a measure of toleration in the United States instead of existence by right, then we are wrong. The only thing more wrong is to assert that these principles have no place in civil society on the grounds that religious authorities have taught them.
An earlier version of this article was published on Helium, and Michael Greaney has a regular column on that site.
© 2008 Michael D. Greaney