Does the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution Have Judeo-Christian Roots?

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.

6 thoughts on “Does the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution Have Judeo-Christian Roots?

  1. I found my way to your blog through the Religion in American History blog – thanks for some really interesting writing about David Barton.

    On the idea that the separation of powers is based on the Old Testament: I've heard people (who have seen the Drive Thru History series by, among others, Barton) argue that Montesquieu was inspired by Isaiah 33:22 – “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is he who will save us.”

    Just google “Isaiah 33:22” and “separation of powers” and you'll find some interesting reading.

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  2. Tim: The original post was not much different than the one on the blog.

    The question was posed to me by an anti-Christian America group in Texas who wanted help making sense of the view of some of the members of the Texas Board of Education who want the Bible's supposed influence on these founding documents to be included in the state social studies standards

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  3. John, I think your answer is fair and judicious. I, too, like the focus on historical context. I wonder, though, if it's a mistake for scholars to engage with such questions as if they're being asked in good faith.

    I've only followed the Texas controversy in passing but it seems to me that the question as posed is not only loaded, but so broad that any answer is trivial for the practical purposes of teaching. Of course these documents have “Judeo-Christian” roots (that term itself seems to have been invented in the 20th century as a way for Christianists to make claims on American public life in a variety of ways while masking their much more specific agenda [many Jewish leaders also embraced this formulation, of course, as a way of combating their “outsider” status] — in this case, does the “Judeo” part of the question have any function other than as a way of making the “Christian” go down more easily?) — but that's true of so much of western intellectual and political life, and in such a general way, that it's an almost meaningless claim in and of it self. You could do the same thing with Aristotle or someone like that.

    It only makes sense to ask or pursue such questions if you believe that those roots have important, active implications for how these documents should be understood in the modern world. In this case I think there are (at least) two things going on — first, the real implication of the question is that these documents have specifically, exclusively, or primarily (Judeo)-Christian roots and, second, the fact that these roots exist means that (modern, conservative, evangelical) Christianity has a greater and more fundamental claim on public life than other intellectual, cultural, or religious traditions. That is what's going to get taught on the basis of answers to the much broader and misleadingly neutral question about whether the founding documents have “Judeo-Christian” roots.

    [Caveat: this was all written very early in the morning while trying to manage three little kids, and without the benefit of any research, so I may want to adjust some of these claims in the cold, hard light of more sleep.]

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  4. I think your response was very good, especially given that the question appeared rather loaded. I also think that how you distinguished between the political philosophy and the historical context of the documents was especially interesting, given that it's not a distinction that I've seen used very often while studying in Western Nebraska.

    I am a bit curious how this answer differs from your actual answer, since you only gave us a version of it- or am I misreading that?

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  5. The idea that “all men are created equal” derives from the Old Testament creation story. The idea of the “consent of the governed” as a source of governmental legitimacy derives from covenant theology. You can find similarities in other traditions, but to argue that these European concepts did not have deep roots in the Jewish and Christian tradition would seem willfully ignorant, to me.

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