J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

McCain Misreads the Constitution and the Bible

Beliefnet’s interview with John McCain has been getting a lot of attention because of the Republican presidential candidate’s odd conception of the U.S. Constitution:

Has the candidates’ personal faith become too big an issue in the presidential race?
...I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, “Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?”

It doesn’t seem like a Muslim candidate would do very well, according to that standard.
...I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith. . . .

A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation. What do you think?
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.
I realize how hard it is for a political candidate, even one who claims to engage in “straight talk,” to say that 55% of the electorate is wrong. But in this case they are, and so is he.

The U.S. Constitution is very clear on the questions of whether it establishes a Christian nation and whether candidates’ faiths should be an issue in elections. It states: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Quite simply, Americans who vote on the basis of candidates’ religions behave unconstitutionally, though there’s no penalty for doing so. (Unlike elected officials like McCain, we ordinary citizens aren’t bound by oath to uphold the Constitution.)

Furthermore, the First Amendment reinforced that the federal government had no established religion in the U.S. of A., and could not favor one religious belief or practice over any other. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution makes no mention of providence or a deity. McCain’s predecessors in the Senate and President John Adams recognized that basis for the country they had helped to found when in 1797 they ratified a treaty with Tripoli that stated, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”

I suppose McCain would acknowledge those facts if pressed, or when his campaign is over. (Sooner or later he’ll recognize that he’s already lost the religious right because of his principled stand on campaign financing. They have their priorities, after all.) McCain wasn’t trying to be exclusionary. Rather, he seems to feel, as much of that 55% of us might as well, that the Constitution is “Christian” in the sense that it reflects values he also associates with his faith. In other words, Constitution = good; Christian = good; therefore, Constitution = Christian.

That approach shows as much wishful thinking about Christianity as about the Constitution because there’s so little overlap between the forms of good each aims for. Christianity is unlike the western world’s other major faiths in not having much advice on government in its holy scriptures. Those documents were written before any Christian rulers were in power. In contrast, at least part of the holy writings of Judaism and Islam were set down after adherents of those faiths started to govern societies. The Hebrew Bible and Koran thus contain advice, either explicit or in the form of stories, about how to govern, conduct war, decide legal disputes, and do other things that states usually do.

The early Christian scriptures are instead focused on another world. In fact, Jesus’s teachings, such as turning the other cheek and giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, are impractical for governing a society in this world. Even Paul, who had to grapple with the question of why that other world hadn’t arrived yet, wrote about how to run a small, oppressed cult, not a state. Christian theologians and politicians have been struggling to reconcile their Bible’s priorities with their societies’ for about 1,700 years. It’s not easy. Of course, Jesus never promised it would be.

As a result of that history, the U.S. Constitution and the Christian New Testament talk about separate activities with separate goals. There’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount about the power to declare war. The Constitution does not endorse the economic system that the Apostles demanded of their followers in Acts 5. Paul’s Epistles say nothing about three branches of government with overlapping powers, and Revelations doesn’t depict a representative legislature in heaven. The New Testament has a lot to say about capital punishment, but not as part of a model justice system.

This country’s founders drew their ideas of national government from British traditions, Roman law, and Enlightenment philosophy. Among the elements of European governments that they discarded were those most closely linked to religion: established churches, legalized discrimination on the basis of faith, and divinely granted royal powers. They saw the purpose of government as securing a better life for “ourselves and our Posterity,” not as securing an immortal life.

There are, to be sure, some similarities that Christian politicians can be guided by, if they’re brave enough. Jesus’s emphasis on “the least of us” and “doing unto others” can be matched with the Bill of Rights’ emphasis on preserving rights against federal power and the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equality under law. However, that same tenet didn’t guide the original Constitution’s protection of slavery, exclusion of Native Americans, or omission of women. The document, and this country, would look quite different if they had indeed been “founded primarily on Christian principles” as Jesus expressed them.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that you post this, as I am just reading a book Power vs Force by David R. Hawkins M.D. and he states that "The makers of the Declaration of Independence were astute in drawing a very clear distinction between that which is spiritual and that which is religious. And they must have intuitively, if not rationally, known the marked differnce between the power of the two. Religious is often associated with force, sometimes disasterously so, historically and today; whereas spititual concepts such as loyalty, freedom and peace don't create strife and conflict, much less war. Spitituality is always associated with nonviolence." Basically, the author makes the point that power always triumphs over force eg) Ghandi triumphed over the British Empire with nonviolence because his principles were based on the same truths as the USA was founded on: self determination, right to freedom...given to man by the divinity of his creation and not granted by any earthly power. These truths were "self evident".

It is interesting to me that religion is often brought into politics and the Founding Fathers are often quoted to backup a politician's point of view. The Founding Fathers clearly drew the line between spirituality and religion.

J. L. Bell said...

I think the distinction between “spirituality” and “religion” is a recent one that the founding generation didn’t share. They may have had a similar understanding using different terms, but what I’m impressed by is their ability to distinguish between what they knew or could rationally prove and what they were willing to admit they didn’t know.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Or to quote George Washington "Providence". Providence would probably be a more 18th century appropriate word than spirituality.

Robert S. Paul said...

Thank you for posting this. I frequently link you to the 13 people who read my blog, anyway, but this one will likely end up with a big gold star next to it as Required Reading.

J R "States" Manship said...

While some folks like to note that Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence mentions God, Creator, divine Providence, sacred honor, and Supreme Judge (as opposed to the small s supreme Court mentioned in Article III of this Constitution), most folks ignore that this Constitution in the first paragraph used the word pair "ordain" and "establish", the first a church word, the second a civic word, while the last paragraph pegs the birth of this United States of America to the birth of Jesus Christ and acknowledges his being Lord.

J. L. Bell said...

Careful you don't hurt yourself by stretching so far.

Anonymous said...

You said that "Americans who vote on the basis of candidates’ religions behave unconstitutionally." Not so. The Constitution only limits state action, not individual action. The reason: to preserve individual liberty.

Additionally, have you considered looking at provisions in state constitutions? They demonstrate that America was very much founded as a Christian nation. The early states did, in fact, have established religions. This was not at odds with the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment restricted the federal government. Similar to the theme described above, the purpose was to promote the liberty of the states to make their own laws.

J. L. Bell said...

The U.S. Constitution states, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” That’s very clear. If you want to use a religious test as a personal qualification for office, you have that freedom, but please don’t try to convince me that you’d be acting in the spirit of the Constitution.

Of course I know that the lengthy first clause of the First Amendment was designed to protect state religious establishments, including that in Massachusetts, as well as to prevent a national religious establishment.

An honest reading of those state laws would acknowledge that they didn’t establish the “Christian” religion but rather a particular form of Christianity—New England Congregationalism. As a result, Christian Baptists were among the most vociferous proponents of true religious freedom in the early republic.