Is America a Biblical Nation?

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Mr. Melancon is Associate Professor of History, Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

   The myth that the United States is founded on the"Judeo-Christian Bible" persists and prospers despite readily available evidence. Contrary to popular belief, the Founding Fathers rejected the biblical model in favor of a secular model of government. 

    The authors of the United States Constitution had first-hand experience with governments created and supported by God.  Preaching at the coronation of King George III, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that the new monarch ruled by"divine appointment" which required his subjects to submit entirely to his authority:

Whosoever resisteth, resisteth the ordinance of God, and shall therefore receive to himself damnation. Where resisting implies not only that violent opposition by force of arms, which in the construction of human laws is rebellion; but all that repining and murmuring, that contradiction and averseness of whatever kind soever, which is inconsistent with the hearty and cheerful subjugation to higher powers in this, and other places of scripture enjoined. Let us then be subject in the fullest sense of this expression, and that, not only through the fear of wrath, but from a principle of conscious towards God, and a sincere love to our Prince. [Quoted in J.D.C. Clark, English Society, 1688-1832, 177-78.]

The Archbishop saw the King's authority as an extension of God's sovereignty and George III in the role of Moses, Saul, David and Solomon.

    To lead successfully a revolution, the Founding Fathers had to reject the biblical model: God did not create and maintain governments. Rather, they endorsed a revolutionary view of government that has its origins outside of the Bible in English common law and the Enlightenment.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Men, not God, created governments. This principle was enshrined in the Constitution itself:

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The success or failure of the government rested with men, not God. God's role in human affairs was limited to bestowing liberty to individuals, and they were free to criticize their own creation and make their own decisions.

    The Preamble to the US Constitution also reveals a radically different purpose for government. God gave the"Law of Moses" in order to promote worship and obedience. The whole purpose of biblical laws was to direct the faithful toward God. The US government has no such objective. In fact the First Amendment explicitly forbids the Congress from establishing a religion. For the Founding Fathers, the purpose of government was to insure that individuals could exercise, as much as possible, their will free from external constraints. The biblical God could not allow such freedom. According to Orthodox Christianity, original sin prevented humans from choosing"good" without the aid of a"father,""prophet" or"messiah." The rejection of original sin allowed dissenters/heretics, such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to argue that all men should be free to create and destroy governments without fear of divine retribution.

    Instead of turning to the Bible, the Founding Fathers turned to secular history. As a group, their basic creed was pragmatism, not Christianity. They wanted to create a government that would promote happiness on earth and sought examples of good government from ancient and contemporary history. It was the Greeks and Romans that experimented with a participatory form of government. Unlike the Hebrews who relied on prophets, the Greeks and the Romans allowed"ordinary citizens" to create and revise laws based on necessity. One cannot forget, however, that the colonist were"Englishmen," and they sought to preserve their"ancient rights," such as the trail by jury and the Writ of Habeas Corpus. Experience taught the Founding Fathers that the power of the government had to be limited if a people were to be happy. Moses and David, on the other hand, had no such limits.

    The Founding Fathers also rejected the notion that political allegiance depended upon faith in God.  Since every European government claimed divine sanction, they required their subjects to profess a particular creed.  Even England, with its liberal Act of Toleration,  restricted Catholic worship because of the Jacobite threat to the crown.  Parliament also passed the Test Act, requiring office holders to prove their faith and political loyalty by taking communion in the Anglican Church.  The US Constitution explicitly outlawed religious tests for office holders.  A person's view's concerning God had absolutely no bearing on loyalty to the state.  Current proponents of including"one Nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance are thus reverting to a pre-Revolutionary War notion that political loyalty is tied to one's faith.

    Advocates of the"Biblical Nation" have turned the words and ideas of the Founding Fathers on their head. No serious scholar would deny the individual faith of many of the Founding Fathers.  When they wrote the Consitution, however, the authors collectively rejected the idea that the US Governments had a divine origin and that it needed to protect and promote faith in God. Quite the contrary, faith in God and individual liberty flourishes when governments keeps their hands off religion. Faith in God and freedom diminish when politicians use God to limit an individual's conscience.