Christian Coalition v. Founders & FramersThis column originally appeared as part of The Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.
The United States Supreme Court heard arguments this week in two cases - Van Orden v. Perry, 03-1500, and McCreary County v. ACLU, 03-1693 - that challenge the constitutionality of displays of the Ten Commandments on government property. The presentation of oral arguments in these cases provides an excellent pretext for a further exploration of the complex role of the Judeo-Christian tradition in early United States history. My task of historical excavation is complicated by the fact that the Ten Commandments held by Catholics, Protestants and Jews are not identical. So, for the sake of clarity, I refer exclusively to the Protestant version in the following analysis.
As I have noted earlier, the Founders and Framers were an intellectually diverse group. Some were Christians of one denomination or another (and differing degrees of conviction), while others were Deists. They drew their inspiration from a wide range of authors and sources - from the historians and orators of Greece and Rome like Polybius, Plutarch, Sallust, Tacitus, and Cicero, to contemporary thinkers like Locke, Hume, Hutcheson, Montesquieu and Beccaria. As we saw with Thomas Jefferson, some of these men might also have been inspired by the philosophical tenets of Jesus, but were not believers in his divinity.
The Founding Generation were inescapably a product of The Enlightenment - which in combination with the Scientific Revolution of the previous century - can be best thought of as a revolt against the then settled tradition of ecclesiastical, scriptural, and hierarchical authority in matters of human knowledge and law.
To be in revolt against a thing assumes intimate knowledge of that thing. The Ten Commandments had considerable impact on the underlying assumptions of Enlightenment era thinking, not to mention the Founders and Framers' essential conception of the good. Hence, it should not be surprising that a number of the Commandments eventually found their way into Federal and State Law - but not all, and not in perpetuity.
Consider, for instance, the First Commandment, which prescribes: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me?. It is instructive to note that when given the opportunity in the Nation's founding document, The Declaration of Independence, to appeal to an ultimate authority, Jefferson evokes 'Nature's God' - a Deistic conception of the Supreme Being - rather than Yahweh, Jehovah or even Jesus Christ.
Jefferson and the committee that collaborated on the Declaration were sending a specific message by that use of that language. They were articulating, for better or for worse, a very different conception of The Creator than that portrayed in the Book of Exodus.
Then, in 1791, this same Commandment (which one can argue is the most important of all from a theological perspective, and the one which the God of the Old Testament was most adamant about) was specifically rejected by the Nation through its adoption of the Bill of Rights - and the First Amendment's guarantee of absolute religious freedom, including the implicit freedom (if a citizen's state also allowed it) to have other Gods before Jehovah. Clearly, the Founders and Framers were having nothing to do with Commandment One.
In contrast, Commandments Six through Nine - the four precepts that religious and ethical scholars participating in the Council of the Parliament of World Religions in 1993 agreed were common to all their traditions - found their way quite naturally into Federal and State law. Rather than requiring adherence to a specific conception of the Deity, these Commandments speak against actual forms of destructive human behavior, and consequently remain foundational elements of our ethical and legal understanding. These Commandments read:
- Thou shall not kill;
- Thou shall not commit adultery;
- Thou shall not steal;
- Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
A Commandment like the Fourth - 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy' - was once widely enforced through the imposition of a variety of State 'blue laws', like the Massachusetts Sunday Laws. The Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of these regulations in 1961, finding that although their original intention may have been specifically religious, the current generation of regulations had been divorced from the religious orientation of their predecessors'. But today, even these prohibitions are disappearing.
Clearly, the Founders and Framers, and the generations of American legislators and jurists who succeeded them, saw the Decalogue as influential, but not uniformly so - and not so influential that it should be treated as the foundation of American life or law. The Founders had an opportunity during the Constitutional Convention to endorse Christianity as the official state religion. They chose not to. Nothing that conservative Christians claim today can counter the historical record.
I hope that in the final ruling on these two cases, expected in June, the Supreme Court will deliver a historically informed, broadly drawn, consensus-creating decision that can put this issue to rest for the foreseeable future. In doing so, they might need only to look upon the walls of their own building - and the frieze depicting Moses and the tablets as well as other important law givers such as Napoleon, Confucius, Hammurabi, Justinian, and Muhammad - as an example of the kind of eclectic representations that would both honor the role of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the American experience as well as put its influence in proper perspective.
As sons of The Enlightenment, the Founders and Framers naturally chose to put their faith in human reason, and the "Laws of Nature" and "Nature's God", as best as they understood them, and not predominantly in the revealed wisdom from Sinai some twenty-five-hundred years earlier. They gave birth to a secular democratic republic with the first written constitution in human history, not a theocracy.
You can disagree with their choice; you can even hate it. But let me suggest that if you hate their choice, then you hate the very thing that made America truly exceptional on the world stage, and forever changed the course of human history.
Nations claiming to be "under God" or comprised of a "chosen people" were nothing new. But a Nation dedicated to the proposition that "all men are created equal", to a government of laws, and not of men, and to a system of checks and balances against the pernicious encroachment of human ambition and overconfidence, was breathtakingly new. It was so new, so remarkable a development in human affairs, that some still glimpse behind our forefathers' choice the guiding hand of 'nature's God'.
Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on March 6, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.