How are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 7

Constitution_of_the_United_States_page_1The Declaration of Independence: Self-Evident Truths

John Locke, whose political thought we examined in the previous article in this series, was a major influence on the Declaration of Independence and thus on the theoretical foundations of the United States. While not explicitly based on biblical ideas, Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence built on earlier ideas developed by Christian theologians, particularly Protestant resistance theory and Calvinist contract theory, as systematized and passed down by Locke. Thus, even though Jefferson was far from an orthodox Christian, his thought needs to be placed into the context of the English and Protestant political tradition.

Jefferson begins with what he describes as self-evident truths. The first is that all people are created equal. This is anything but self-evident in most contexts. Some people are more intelligent than others, stronger, faster, or more powerful than others, better leaders than others, better looking than others, and so on. In fact, no culture in history had believed in the fundamental equality of all persons prior to the advent of Christianity. The New Testament explicitly states that race, ethnicity, class, and gender do not matter before God. Human worth in the Bible is based first on the Image of God that we all share, and our spiritual and moral equality before God is further affirmed by the fact that we all are sinners and we are all saved the same way, by the work of Christ.

The second self-evident truth is that all persons are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. The idea of universal human rights is rooted once again in the Bible. As we saw in the article on Locke, medieval theologians identified a set of rights that God gave humanity in Eden; they thus predate government and so are beyond the reach of government. No other religion or worldview had such an idea prior to the advent of Christianity.

The next self-evident truth is that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights given to us by God. Life and liberty were recognized as such by medieval theologians as discussed in the previous article; Jefferson, however, replaced Locke’s third unalienable right (property) with the pursuit of happiness.

To understand why, we need to look at what Jefferson meant by happiness. Happiness was the word commonly used to translate the Greek word eudaimonia, which meant a life well lived. Aristotle argued that it consisted of “virtuous living in accord with reason.” (“Virtue” here translates aretē, a word which could be better translated as “excellence” in all areas of life.) In other words, Jefferson argues that pursuing the classical idea of a life of excellence, a life well lived, is an unalienable right. Living this way, of course, requires at least a certain amount of wealth and thus implies a right to property. The essential idea is that the government cannot restrict us from developing ourselves as far as we are capable of, morally and in every other way, nor deprive us of the means for doing so.

Jefferson thus rejects the idea that license—freedom from restraint—is an unalienable right. “Happiness” complements liberty, not license, in pointing to the purpose of the rights given by God: It is freedom for something, to enable us to live a good life in every sense of the term. (See the previous article for an explanation of liberty vs. license.)

The fourth self-evident truth is that governments are instituted to ensure these rights; this is straight out of Locke and is rooted firmly in Calvinist social contract theory. Similarly, his fifth self-evident truth is the people’s right of rebellion should the government violate their unalienable rights, an idea again taken directly from Locke and developed from Protestant resistance theory.

There has been endless argument about whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation; what is clear is that the fundamental principles justifying the American Revolution that Jefferson articulated in the Declaration of Independence came almost entirely from the Christian tradition. In fact, apart from the Christian tradition that we have been examining, the self-evident truths Jefferson articulates are anything but self-evident. The sole truth that was not drawn from the Christian tradition came from Aristotle, whose thought had been integrated into Christian theology since at least the 12th century. The pursuit of happiness understood in Aristotelian terms is completely compatible with Christian political theology.

In other words, the Declaration of Independence reflects a worldview steeped in Christianity, and particularly in Protestant resistance theory and Calvinist social contract theory.

The Constitution

Turning to the U.S. Constitution, we once again see the influence of Christian theology, though not in the ways sometimes cited in support of the idea that America is a Christian nation. The Puritans brought with them a Calvinist theology heavily influenced by St. Augustine. As we have seen, Augustine had a very pessimistic view of human government because he was acutely aware of the impact of original sin. Following Augustine, Christian political theorists argued that government must be limited, since no person or institution can be trusted with unlimited power—because of original sin, unlimited power would inevitably lead to corruption and tyranny.

Augustinian pessimism is thus at the heart of the Constitution’s separation of powers and system of checks and balances. The Framers of the Constitution laid out a system whereby each branch of government was given specific responsibilities and could act as a check on the power of the others. They assumed that each institution in the government would jealously preserve its own power and prerogatives while at the same time guard against any other institution overstepping its bounds.

For this to work, two things were necessary. First, there could be no political parties. Parties were feared because they were seen as factions, and factions are the death of republican governments. The danger of political parties is that loyalty to party could trump loyalty to institution, and thus coalitions across the branches of government could develop that would undermine the entire system of checks and balances, most likely leading to a tyrannical presidency.

The fear of faction even affected the Constitution’s provisions for electing the president: In its original form, the Constitution called for the president to be the person with the most electoral votes, and the vice president to be the runner-up. This system rapidly proved unworkable, however, and thus the Constitution was amended to allow for the president and vice president to be elected on a slate together—opening the door to political parties.

In light of how the government has been functioning in recent years, the Framers’ fear that parties would lead to coalitions between the branches of government and the breakdown of the system of checks and balances seems to have been well-founded.

Second, the Framers recognized that no matter how well designed the system was, corruption was always possible. They insisted, therefore, that the only protection against corruption was the election of virtuous persons into the government. Corrupt, immoral, greedy, or power-hungry individuals would always find a way around the system to get their way; though the system of checks and balances might hinder this, the only sure defense is the election of good people to office.

The Framers at this point departed from John Locke, who believed that a well-designed governmental system could prevent corruption, an idea based on Locke’s psychological theories. The effect of this is that the U.S. Constitution is considerably shorter than Locke’s constitution for the Carolina Colonies: There was simply no need for elaborate systems to be spelled out in detail to prevent corruption, since a corrupt individual would always find a way around them and honorable people would not need them.

In order to ratify the Constitution, some states insisted that a Bill of Rights be added to it. The Framers were reluctant to do this, since it might suggest that the specific rights named were the only ones the Constitution guaranteed; nonetheless, they agreed to add the Bill of Rights so that the Constitution would be ratified. We will return to the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the next article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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