The Constitution and Religion

The framers of the Constitution developed their conceptions of religion and government based on a variety of sources: classical political theory, such as Aristotle; European political theory, such as Machiavelli; English political theory, such as Locke and Hobbes; but also the Christian tradition. For example, Jesus taught to give to Caesar what is due Caesar, and give to God what is due God. Paul taught to obey magistrates as representatives of God’s order. Themes of the New Testament include that God is Justice; that God grants free will and forgiveness; that sin leads to suffering, unhappiness, and pain; that God’s benevolence makes good come from disorder and licentiousness.

The framers of the Constitution wrote in the wake of the disorder caused by the American Revolution. Two thinkers who were part of the intellectual climate during which the Constitution was written were Ebenezer Hazard and Jeremy Belknap. My book, Ebenezer Hazard, Jeremy Belknap, and the American Revolution provides a detailed outline of their respective political philosophies. 

The challenge of the American Revolution was, for Hazard and Belknap, to somehow bring order out of an inherently disorderly situation. Eight years of conflict, chaos, and wanton freedom must be countered by stability and order. How? England represented order, against which the Americans waged a war for liberty. To gain liberty, disorder had to be pursued—that is war. But the disorder of too much liberty has to be constrained by government. The Americans could not have a revolution that was anarchic. They had to have some kind of order, which they accomplished with state governments and the Articles of Confederation. But this situation was one of thirteen sovereign powers attempting to unite the American people in a common government, and disorder and chaos still threatened. Conservatives, fearing disorder, decided to erect a more orderly government, the Constitution. The Constitution involved a reconciliation between freedom and order. 

Jeremy Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard believed that the epoch of revolution, of liberty and the threat of disorder, was akin to the individual’s struggle with sin. God grants the individual free will, just as the Americans wanted to exercise their free will by declaring independence and achieving liberty from England. The problem with free will is that humans are prone to sin, and free will leads to sin, from which, to recover, one must find grace in God’s forgiveness. For God establishes His eternal order of right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and sin, which humans try to conform to, and when they sin, which they inevitably do, they must reach out to God’s mercy for forgiveness. Just as human sin can be constrained, mitigated, by conforming to God’s order, God’s justice, so too human liberty that is too wanton can be constrained, mitigated, by government order, government justice. But can government ever approach the goodness of God, the order of God, the justice of God? The individual must recognize the sovereignty of God—that God’s will alone is the ultimate authority. Likewise, in civil affairs, can the people recognize a sovereign power that alone has the ultimate authority, that we can submit to, when necessary, even give up some of our liberty to, just as we submit to God, and know that we must sometimes give up some of our sinfulness, our free will, to conform to God’s order?

What were examples of this sovereignty in civil affairs that would be akin to God’s sovereignty, and how did it fit the reality of the American Revolution, and America’s search for liberty?

The Mayflower Compact posits the sovereignty of God, next to which is sovereignty of the king. The Declaration of Independence calls upon the protection of Divine Providence, the Supreme Judge of the world. The Articles of Confederation calls upon the Great Governor of the World. The Declaration and Articles imply that there are two sovereign sources, God and the States (and the people in the states). The Constitution does not mention God, rather grants sovereignty to the people (“We the people…”).

The Preamble of the Constitution posits a society of justice and benevolence where the people are sovereign. The Constitution, a secular force, implies an authority like the sovereignty of God; the people are God’s representatives (instead of the king).

The Constitution is a secular document, God is not mentioned, and religion is only addressed, vaguely, in the First Amendment. The debate over individual free will and God’s justice and order, in which the order of society and order of God has hitherto been confused with the sovereignty of God’s representative, whether it be a king or emperor or States, is now the People themselves. The people represent God’s sovereignty by ensuring that they can impose order on their own liberty, impose order on their own free will, to strike a balance between free will (liberty) and order (sovereignty). But no longer is it me and the other, us and them, but now it is me and we, the individual and the collective, merging together the common desire to restrain from disorder (that is, sin) and promote order, but at the same time enjoying as much free will, liberty, as possible.

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About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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