A frequent refrain among the religious right and Republicans is that the United States of America is a “Christian nation”, or that this country was founded on “Christian principles.” Last week, I shared a story where textbooks in Texas will now teach that Moses was the originator of democracy.
It’s worth calling attention to the obnoxious rhetorical ploy of using “Christian values” to refer to very specific, right-wing beliefs: preemptive war, gay-bashing, tax cuts for the rich, creationism in schools, deregulating corporations, dismantling the social safety net, the standard Republican package. As if they owned or had the right to define all of Christianity. In reality, there’s such a huge diversity of opinion among self-professed Christians that the term “Christian values” could mean nearly anything.
This broad range of opinion comes about because the Bible never mentions many of these issues, and addresses others in only vague or contradictory passages scattered throughout its individual books. This gives individual Christians wide latitude to find support in the text for virtually any political position you’d care to name.
However, there’s one area where there’s much less room for debate, and that’s the question of political organization. The Bible sets out a very clear picture of what its authors believed the ideal state would look like. We can compare this statement to the dictates of the Bible to see what it would mean to have a government based on “Christian values.”
But right away there’s a huge problem; the Bible’s ideal government is unequivocally theocracy via divine-right monarchy, a system of governance where the church and the state are one, where there’s an official religion which all citizens are required to profess, and where law is made by a single supreme ruler and enforced by the priesthood.
The New Testament itself teaches the virtue of submission to authority figures. It states unequivocally that earthly rulers, even when they are unjust, are ordained to their position by God and that Christian believers should obey them without question and those who resist are in peril of eternal damnation (Romans 13:1-2).
All these ideas, so clearly advocated in the Bible seem contrary to what the United States stands for. The idea of divine-right kingship is what our founders successfully rebelled against in bringing forth this country. Americans have a long and colorful history of debate, protest, and civil disobedience. The right to criticize our leaders is sanctified in the Constitution.
So, in an attempt to clear up these apparent contradictions, I’ll list some of America’s core defining principles as given in the Constitution, and examine whether any of them could plausibly be said to come from Christianity or the Bible.
The Constitution: Through a public ballot open to all adult citizens, Americans elect candidates who will represent them at the local, state and federal levels. All officials of the American government are either directly elected by the people or are appointed by others who are elected (Article I & II).
The Bible: Despite the fact that Athens adopted democracy around 500 BCE and Rome was a republic from ~510 BCE until 44 BCE, the Bible never even mentions democracy. As stated above, rather than democracy, the Bible’s preferred model of government is divine-right monarchy, where one individual is hereditarily chosen and wields supreme power. In fact, it stands to reason that Jewish and early Christian authorities hated the concept of democracy since to them it would have been a strange, backward tradition invented and practiced by pagans.
Separation of powers:
The Constitution: The American government is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branches. Through various mechanisms, these three branches can check each other’s power – the president can issue pardons and veto legislation, Congress can override vetoes and pass constitutional amendments, and the courts can rule laws and executive actions unconstitutional – which ideally prevents too much power from accumulating in the hands of any one individual or group (Articles I-III).
The Bible: Again, in the Bible’s divine-right monarchy, a single individual wields supreme power over all functions of government. Some apologists seek to find an equivalent in a verse from Isaiah 33; “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king”. What they overlook is that this verse explicitly envisions all three of these powers as being held by the same entity.
The Constitution: The U.S. is set up as a series of states with a limited degree of autonomy, united together and overseen by a central, federal government. Power is shared between the two, with some areas being the province of the states and others set by the federal authority (Article IV).
The Bible: There is actually a partial equivalence found for this in the Bible. In the Old Testament’s society, each of the twelve tribes of Israel had partial autonomy over its own region, which is somewhat similar to the American model of states. However, there is a notable difference. The Bible envisions membership in a tribe as hereditary, whereas states are made up of free collections of individuals who can move around at will. In any case, some sort of hierarchy is unavoidable in any organization too large for a single person to directly oversee.
The process of amendment:
The Constitution: The U.S. Constitution can be changed in any way, either to pass new clauses or to repeal existing ones if the proposed amendment is approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states (Article V).
The Bible: Rather than creating a living, dynamic system of laws that can be improved and mended as society sees fit, the Bible claims that its laws are eternal and immutable, literally set in stone, and can neither be added to nor changed. The Old Testament says that each of its laws “shall be a statute forever” (Leviticus 23:41), and the New Testament says that anyone who suggests a different gospel should be accursed (Galatians 1:8-9).
The Constitution: Explicitly provides that no religious test shall ever be required for any public office in the United States (Article VI), nor shall the government officially establish any religion (Amendment I). No law which infringes on the free exercise of religion is permitted.
The Bible: Do I even need to get into this? Far from granting people the right to worship as they see fit, the Bible says that anyone who encourages believers to serve other gods, or anyone who speaks “blasphemy”, should be killed (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, Leviticus 24:16). God himself joins in on many occasions by slaughtering people who worship different gods (Exodus 22:20). Although Jesus says that people should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), there is no indication that any non-Christian should enjoy the same freedom of worship as believers.
Freedom of speech, assembly, press and petition:
The Constitution: The First Amendment to the Constitution provides that no law shall be passed which abridges the citizens’ freedom of speech, nor their right to protest and petition the government, nor the right of the press to report information on the events of the day.
The Bible: Explicitly denied. As above, the Bible does not grant freedom of speech, but rather threatens death for those who speak in unapproved ways. Ancient Israel had no concept of the press, but there are many cases in which people were killed for unapproved assemblies or for questioning their leaders (Numbers 16:35).
Protection from search and seizure:
The Constitution: The police force in America (theoretically) may not enter a person’s home or search their possessions without proving reasonable suspicion and obtaining the consent of an independent magistrate in the form of a search warrant (Amendment IV).
The Bible: No equivalent. Lacking any judicial system or separation of powers, the Bible has no notion of search warrants or of protection from arbitrary seizure.
Trial by jury:
The Constitution: Americans accused of crimes can only be convicted by a jury made up of people living in the area where the crime has taken place. In addition, people on trial have the right to confront witnesses against them and may not be compelled to testify against themselves (Amendment V & VI).
The Bible: Nope. Again, the Bible has nothing like our custom of the legal or judicial system. It does say that a man who suspects his wife of committing adultery can bring her before the priests and force her to drink “bitter water” which will cause her belly to swell and her thighs to rot if she is guilty (Numbers 5). If anything, this is most similar to the barbaric concept of trial by ordeal. It also says that anyone who accidentally kills someone may be killed without consequence by a relative of the deceased whom it calls the “avenger of blood” (Joshua 20). Again, no mention is made of convening a jury to determine the guilt of the accused. Finally, it says that any person may be convicted of a crime on the testimony of just two witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), which is a far cry from the American legal system.
Protection from cruel or unusual punishment:
The Constitution: Cruel, degrading, or torturous punishments are constitutionally forbidden (Amendment VIII).
The Bible: One of the most common punishments prescribed by the Bible is stoning – bludgeoning a person to death by smashing in his head and face with rocks. This penalty is prescribed for crimes such as disobeying one’s parents (Deuteronomy 21:21), picking up sticks on Sunday (Numbers 15:36), or being gay (Leviticus 20:13). This is cruel and unusual punishment by any rational definition of that term.
Equality of all people under the law:
The Constitution: Most fundamental to the American experiment is the idea that all people have equal protection under the law, that no one group has any more or fewer legal rights than any other (Amendment XIV). This more than anything else is the idea that defines us, and though we have not always lived up to it, throughout our history we have steadily been making strides toward expanding the boundaries of liberty to include all Americans.
The Bible: Explicitly denied. The Bible makes it clear that the Israelites enjoyed special favor as compared to everybody else, and were treated differently by the Mosaic law code. For example, foreigners taken as slaves could be kept indefinitely, while Israelite slaves were freed every seven years during Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-46). Even among Israelites, there were stark divisions: women are worth considerably less than men (Leviticus 27:1-7), and the handicapped are discriminated against (Leviticus 21:17-23). Even Jesus joins in by making statements comparing non-Jews to dogs (Mark 7:27).
In sum, the basic principles of American democracy cannot be found in either testament of the Bible. This is hardly surprising, America’s founders drew their ideas from the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as from English common law; they said so themselves. America is a secular nation with a separation of church and state. We have no official faith and no national church as many European countries still do.
But America’s Constitution is more than just a secular document; it’s literally godless. It never claims that the ideas it contains were the product of divine revelation. It states that governing power comes from the will of the people, not the commands of a deity. It doesn’t assert that God has specially blessed this nation or shown it special favor. In fact, it never mentions God at all.
If America’s founders had meant to establish a Christian nation, this is where they would have said so. But they said no such thing. And this is a historical fact that the religious right would dearly love to forget.