Today I have been writing a chapter on the question of whether or not the United States Constitution is a Christian document. (It is not). Some of you might remember that during the 2008 presidential election John McCain claimed that the Constitution established a Christian nation. Others have tried to make a similar argument.
Yet it seems to me that of all the founding documents, the Constitution is the most “godless.” There are a lot of reasons why this is true, but any argument about the “Christian” character of the Constitution must come to grips with the decision of the framers to keep slavery in the Union. In this sense, I think William Lloyd Garrison and other Christian abolitionists were right when they criticized the Constitution as an un-Christian document.
I like Akhil Amar’s take on the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise. He dispels the common notion that the Compromise defined a slave as three-fifths of a person. Such a view actually gives the framers far too much credit. Actually, in terms of political participation (which is really what the Compromise was all about–it was not about the human status of slaves), slaves were worth “zero-fifths” of a person.
While writing this morning I recalled a great quote from Mark A. Noll, George M. Marsden, and Nathan O. Hatch’s The Search for Christian America . In this passage, Noll responds to the way that many Christians use the Constitution to argue against abortion rights:
Opposition to such practice (abortion rights) is sometimes based on a questionable view of American traditions. Abortion-on-demand, it is said, violates the heritage of American respect for life and for the legal status of all persons. There is some truth to this, but only some. A realistic view of American history, especially the history of the Revolution, shows that from the beginning of the country, high ideals of liberty for all existed side by side with the systematic denial of legal protection for entire classes of human beings. American governments have never done a good job of protecting the powerless and the unrepresented. Even the Constitution, which often reflects sound views on the restraint of power, treated slaves as less than human and completely avoided the question of their rights.
Noll is not saying that pro-life Christians should stop fighting against abortion. Far from it. But he IS saying that Christians should be careful about using the history of the American founding to do it.