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This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In honor of Independence Day

This is an excerpt from my book Why You Think the Way You Do dealing with the worldview of the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the first part of my discussion of the Constitution. If you want the rest, you'll need to get the book!


The American Revolution
The second revolution was in the British colonies in America in 1776. The causes of the American Revolution are many and varied, and historians and politicians argue about them constantly. Although taxation without representation is usually cited as the main reason for the revolution, that issue actually is number seventeen in the Declaration of Independence. One critical element was royal interference with the colonies’ right to govern their own affairs. For example, several colonies had passed laws abolishing slavery, but the monarchy had vetoed them. In some cases, the monarchy changed the terms of government within the colonies to place them under governors appointed by London.
The leaders of the revolution saw these and other actions by the government as violations of their liberty and, in some cases, their property; following the logic of the Glorious Revolution, they therefore had a right to end their allegiance to Britain. In fact, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson indirectly refers to Locke with his appeal to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Locke had property as the third inalienable right, but to Jefferson, the pursuit of the good life, by which he meant a life of virtue, was even more fundamental. Of course, property enabled one to pursue this kind of life and so was also important, but Jefferson wanted the focus to be on virtue. In any event, after the Revolution and a brief period under the Articles of Confederation, the new country adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as the fundamental law of the land.
Enlightenment, Christianity, and the Constitution
The origins of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are also debated hotly, and the issue has become highly politicized. The key point for present purposes is the worldview of the framers. One side argues that they were deists, rationalists, and secularists in the mold of the Enlightenment; the other claims they were orthodox Christians.
There is no question that Enlightenment thought influenced the founders, particularly John Locke’s political thought. And some of the founders were heavily influenced by deism. Probably the most consistent of these was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson went so far as to take a pair of scissors and cut out of the Bible everything he found unreasonable, including all cases of supernatural intervention; he then read the rest for inspiration. At the same time, however, he considered himself a Christian and expressed concerns about divine judgment on the nation—something a consistent deist would not do since God does not intervene in the world. Over, however, in terms of worldview, there is little question Jefferson leaned heavily toward deism. On the other hand, though he penned the Declaration of Independence, he was in Europe during the Constitutional Convention and the passing of the Bill of Rights, so his views are hardly relevant to those documents.
Benjamin Franklin, who is rightly viewed by all sides as one of the least religious of the founders, strongly advocated prayer at the Constitutional Convention: he said that prayer in the Continental Congress during the Revolution had resulted in the protection and guidance of Providence, and urged the Convention to follow that precedent in their own deliberations. (As it turns out, the motion failed because the Convention did not have enough money to hire a minister to lead the prayers.) Franklin thus had some kind of religious belief, and was not a pure deist because he believed that Providence intervened in the world in answer to prayer. The same can be said of George Washington. Several people reported walking in on him when he was on his knees fervently praying. In fact, only a very small minority of the 200 or so people considered Founding Fathers in America could be fairly described as deists or free thinkers.
The rest belonged to a variety of orthodox churches, Congregational, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, and others (though some of the founders who were members of these churches had somewhat unorthodox views). Many were ministers or had divinity degrees. And if you take the time to read what they wrote, both for public and private audiences, it is clear that they thought they were establishing a government based on biblical principles. These include the idea of inalienable rights enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, which as we have seen had roots in medieval theology, limitations on the reach of the federal government to the enumerated powers in the Constitution, checks and balances within the government to prevent human sinfulness from corrupting the government, even representative government, which they saw coming from Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18. To be sure, they very rarely cited chapter and verse from Scripture in their political discussions, but their priorities and overall approach to government was firmly grounded in a Christian worldview.
In fact, a ten year study from the University of Houston examined 15,000 documents (many unrelated to politics) from the founders and determined that 34% of the quotations came from the Bible, the highest of any source. The next highest was Montesquieu at 8.3%, then Blackstone at 7.9%. Locke came in at 2.9%.[1] (Blackstone’s commentaries on the law, which guided even the Supreme Court for over a century, also include a great deal of Scripture and argue that the Bible is the foundation for all law.) Whatever else can be said, it is clear from this study that the intellectual world of the founders was very heavily influenced by Scripture.


[1] Donald Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 136-49.