I was recently asked by a non-profit organization in the thick of the Texas Social Standards debate to give my opinion on whether or not schoolchildren should learn that the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution had “Judeo-Christian” roots.
Here is a version of my answer. I am curious to hear what my readers think about this. Remember, I am writing about what students should learn about these documents in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.
The Declaration of Independence: It seems to me that history students must know PRIMARILY that the Declaration of Independence was just that–A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE FROM GREAT BRITAIN. While it contains many important philosophical ideas about natural rights, it was primarily a means to announce to the world that the British colonies would no longer be subject to English rule. This means that the grievances listed in the Declaration should be just as much of a concern–if not more of a concern–to the student of history as the prologue. It must be studied in the context of the period between 1763 and 1776 and the events, taxes, etc… leading up to independence. Sometimes we get so caught up with the political philosophy of the Declaration that we forget the primary reason why the document was written. In fact, as Pauline Maier has argued in a fabulous book entitled *American Scripture*, the Declaration of Independence was not perceived as a philosophical treaty about natural rights, or an “American Scripture,” until the nineteenth century.
Students in civics classes, however, WILL need to address the political philosophy of the document. (This is ultimately the bailiwick of a political philosopher and not a historian, but I will take a shot at it). The Declaration mentions or references God four times, but it is certainly not a document that is overtly Christian in any way. It does not mention Jesus Christ or the Resurrection or the Trinity. The God of the Declaration is a generic one–“nature’s God.” In this sense, the Declaration of Independence might be perceived as a “theistic” document, but not a uniquely Judeo-Christian document.
Having said that, Jefferson and the committee who wrote the Declaration did affirm that natural rights came from God. In other words, they affirmed that God is the author of the natural rights afforded to all people. Recently scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale) and John Witte Jr. (Emory) have suggested that the idea of human rights stems from longstanding Christian principles drawn, for example, from Genesis, chapter one (the Imago Dei) or the idea that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent worth and value. I am in the process of reading this material, but so far these authors make a decent argument that the Western idea of human rights is at the very least compatible with historic Christianity’s understanding of the human rights. And since Christianity played such a dominant role in the history and culture of the West, one could make a legitimate argument that natural rights do have some Judeo-Christian roots. (This, of course, does not take away from the more secular and Enlightened views of people like Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu). So when it comes to the Declaration and its political philosophy, I am not sure I would disagree with the idea that Judeo-Christian ideals were in the mix, but not in any direct way.
ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION and CONSTITUTION: Since both of these documents are largely frames of government, it is more difficult to connect Judeo-Christian ideas to them. David Barton and company have made the argument that ideas such as the separation of powers come from Old Testament passages. I have no idea where they are getting this from. It is certainly not something that legitimate scholars argue and, in my opinion, does not merit inclusion in social studies standards. None of the framers of the Constitution made appeals to scripture to justify checks and balances or branches of government.
The Articles do make reference to God. The Constitution does not. As far as the First Amendment is concerned, one could make a convincing argument that the religious freedom and liberty of conscience embedded in the First Amendment could be rooted in religious ideas such as the Imago Dei. One could also argue that Roger Williams and William Penn promoted this idea as well. (Both were very religious men–Williams a Puritan, Penn a Quaker). Yet I find it difficult to reconcile an argument about religious freedom (even it is rooted in Christian ideals about human dignity and divinely ordained rights) with the idea that America is a “Christian nation.”
The need for checks and balances in the Constitution DOES presume a negative/dour view of human nature, as James Madison argued in Federalist 10. The view that human beings are prone to self-interest and in need of governmental checks to control self-interest is certainly compatible with a Calvinist view of the depravity of humankind. But the connections between Federalist 10 and Calvinism is, as I see it, not a strong one (this despite Madison’s training at Princeton under the Calvinist minister John Witherspoon). Moreover, while Madison argues that human beings are by nature prone to self-interest, his way of solving this problem was to create a strong central government in order to curb self-interest or make sure that one’s self-interest does not trump the self-interest of somebody else. I am not sure that libertarian capitalists like Barton would be happy with the idea that government is the best way to deal with the natural self-interest of humans.
As for the Articles of Confederation it seems that any attempt to try to find Judeo-Christian roots in this document is missing the entire point of the document. History students should study the Articles to see the way in which the fear of centralized government after the American Revolution led to the creation of a weak central government that gave virtually all the power to the states. I have no qualms with students studying the political philosophy behind the Articles, but this document is better taught historically in the context of Revolutionary political history.