Followers of this blog will have already figured out that I sometimes get to the point slowly. (I prefer to think of myself as systematic.) A case in point is this series of posts on Christianity and the Constitution. Rather than dive right into a dogmatic argument, I began by asking us to consider our motives for exploring the subject in the first place (see here). I followed that crucial question with a warning, using the often embellished story of Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention as a reminder that “revisionist” history was not invented by post-1960 liberals. (See here.) Well-meaning Christians have been revisionists, too.
I’ve taken this path because my goal in this blog is not so much to convince you what you should believe about the role of Christian faith in American history. I am more than ever convinced that a genuinely Christian approach to the study of the past will be reflected more in how we think than in what we conclude. Developing Christian habits of mind as we think historically requires that we practice metacognition, i.e., that we self-consciously think about how we think.
With this caveat, I’m finally ready to make my own case about the relationship between Christianity and the Constitution–sort of. My approach may not be what you expect. I believe that one of the greatest obstacles to our learning anything from the Constitution (as opposed to about it) is our very preoccupation with constitutionality. Caught up in contemporary political struggles over the acceptable place for religious belief in the public square, we ransack history for evidence that the Framers were on our side. This is the epitome of the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past. (See “What is the Value of History–Part II.) As I have argued repeatedly, this approach always exacts its price: we find what we already “know” but actually learn nothing at all.
Seventy years ago, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter captured the cost of the transaction when he observed, “Our constant preoccupation with the constitutionality of legislation rather than with its wisdom tends to preoccupation of the American mind with a false value.” Did you notice how he distinguished between constitutionality and wisdom? Following Frankfurter, as a Christian interested in learning from the past, I would argue that going to the Constitution solely with questions of constitutionality in mind closes us off from a much richer payoff. I’m enough of a realist to understand that we can’t ignore questions of constitutionality entirely, but we mustn’t allow them to become all consuming. We need to be seeking illumination more than ammunition, and that necessitates a different approach.
Popular Christian writers have explored the relationship of Christianity to the Constitution primarily by posing one huge, dichotomous question: Is the Constitution a Christian document, or isn’t it? To confirm that it is (and this is typically their predetermined goal), they have either tried to prove that the document was shaped by Christian (or Judeo-Christian) thinking, or, more simplistically, to establish that the men who crafted it were orthodox believers.
Both approaches are fraught with difficulty. Establishing intellectual causation may be the most difficult task a historian ever attempts. We know from their correspondence, diaries, “common books,” and libraries that the Framers were not only extraordinarily well read–students of history, philosophy, science, and ancient literature, as well as theology–but also practical men of the world with practical concerns about profit and power. Unraveling the interwoven threads of intellectual influence to identify a single strand as determinative is almost impossible, and our conclusions will in all probability say more about our own biases than about the mindset of the Framers.
We should also be leery of the claim that it is a simple thing to substantiate the faith of figures from two centuries ago. “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him?” the Apostle Paul asked (I Corinthians 2:11). We should be even more suspicious of the implicit supposition that professing Christians will necessarily think and act Christianly, as well as of the corollary that Christians from the 18th century would necessarily agree with Christians in 2013.
Candidly, I’m for abandoning the whole attempt either to identify the Christian influences on the Framers or to determine what proportion of them were authentic believers. It is far more fruitful, in my opinion, simply to take the document that they bequeathed to us and try to figure out the values and concerns that it reflected. Rather than merely searching for ammunition with which to score points in contemporary debates, we can approach the creation of the Constitution ideally as we would any other crucial event from the past. We can think of it as a window, a portal through which to explore the mindset of another time. We cal also welcome it as a mirror, inasmuch as contemplating the past can often help us to see the present more clearly.
So here is my recommendation: rather than asking, “Is the Constitution a Christian document,” it is far better to ask instead, “What values and convictions inform the Constitution, and to what degree are they consistent with Christian teaching?“ Note two key features of the latter question: It is not dichotomous (yes/no questions always promote oversimplification), and it asks us to think about correlation (which can be logically demonstrated) rather than causation (which is almost impossible to prove).
The broad question that I am advocating actually encompasses a host of subsidiary questions. In exploring the “values and convictions” that informed the Constitution, we might subdivide the task to ask a series of narrower questions. For example, what view of the role of government shaped the Framers’ deliberations? Or what was their understanding of society, of equality, of justice, of individual rights? As we explored each, our goal would not be to determine the way that Christian conviction shaped the Framers’ particular views, but instead to evaluate the degree to which their views, whatever their foundation, can be reconciled with Christian principles.
I wish I were knowledgeable enough to investigate all of these questions with you, but I am not. I do want to take the time to explore one such question that I have thought a lot about, namely, what is the view of human nature that under girds the Constitution? Popular writers interested in Christianity and the Constitution have devoted much of their attention to figuring out what the Framers thought about God. I’m inclined to believe that we should spend more time trying to determine what they thought about man. Certainly, the Framers thought that no free government could long endure without an accurate understanding of the human condition. As Virginia delegate James Madison put it so memorably, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
Figuring out the view of human nature that informs the Constitution isn’t easy if we limit our search to the document itself, however. As historian Forrest McDonald has observed, the Constitution is essentially a procedural document. Apart from its brief preamble, it just tersely specifies who exercises which powers and how. What is more, it comes without study notes or elaborate commentary to help us understand it.
For that we need to turn to the record of the extensive conversation that unfolded as Americans debated whether to ratify the proposed framework. There is no better starting place in this regard than the Federalist (often known as the Federalist Papers), a series of eighty-four essays penned in 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (The first two were delegates to the convention itself.) Staunch advocates of ratification, the authors undertook a systematic justification of the proposed Constitution, and their arguments on its behalf regularly link its signal features to the Framers’ understanding of the human heart.
In the Federalist we read about “the folly and wickedness of mankind” and the “ordinary depravity of human nature” (no, 78). We are told that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious” and that “momentary passions and immediate interests” control human conduct more than “considerations of . . . justice” (no. 6). We hear that “the mild voice of reason . . . is but too often drowned . . . by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain” (no. 42). Other similar characterizations abound in the Federalist. Collectively, they drive home the authors’ conviction that self-interest was the predominant motive in the human breast and that virtue (which they would have defined as self-denial for the common good) was as uncommon as it was precious and fragile.
From these two convictions, it followed that power, however wielded, would always pose a threat to justice and liberty. When the people wielded unchecked power, some subset of the population would always be vulnerable. (“If a minority be united by a common interest,” Federalist 51 averred, “the rights of the minority will be insecure.”) When the government wielded unchecked power, on the other hand, the rights of the people would be in jeopardy. (Once in power, according to Federalist 61, leaders are prone to “forget their obligations to their constituents and prove unfaithful to their important trust.”)
In the light of this skeptical understanding of human nature laid bare by the Federalist, the significance of the procedural details of the Constitution that we all learn in civics class comes into focus. Both the system of checks and balances designed to constrain the government, as well as the limitations on popular influence designed to protect it, are reflections of a fundamental suspicion of unlimited power, which in turn reflects the Framers’ basic assessment of our flawed human nature. The very structure of the Constitution becomes an implicit reminder of the view of human nature that the Federalist makes explicit.
As Christians, we can then proceed to ask whether this underlying understanding of human nature is consistent with what God has revealed through His word. You and I might disagree, but I would say that it is absolutely consistent. Whatever the source of their views, the Framers held an understanding of human nature that as Christians we can in good conscience affirm. Whether that view of human nature continues to shape government today, or the ideology of either major political party, or even the values of many American churches, is a different question entirely.