Constitutional Clarity

I have been reading The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World by W. Cleon Skousen. It is the curriculum for the current 9/12 Project groups that have sprung up across the nation.

From another source, I found the following:

During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, many mainline Christians howled at its silence on religion. The Presbytery of Massachusetts and New Hampshire groused to George Washington, “we should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgment of THE TRUE ONLY GOD, AND JESUS CHRIST whom he has sent, inserted somewhere in the Magna Charta of our country.” Washington demurred. “I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe, that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction,” he said. “To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation respecting religion from the Magna Charta of our country.”

Reflected in this debate, two competing themes combined to compose the dissonant music of early American politics. The first theme, sounded in New England from the time of the Puritans, posited the ideal of a Christian Commonwealth. Uplifted by the imperatives of Christian morality, the government would be a shining city on a hill, fulfilling God’s mandates and receiving his aid.

The second theme, codified in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, arose from Enlightenment France. Rather than that of Christian Commonwealth, it posited the ideal of individual freedom. Jefferson dreamed of establishing an Empire of Liberty, whose government sacredly would protect each individual’s God–given freedom of conscience. [1]

Seldom do we find such a clear explanation of the central concern that has animated American politics during the more than two hundred years of it existence. There have been two competing religious worlviews that were written into the Constitution. This debate has been expressed over the years as to whether or not the United States is or has ever been a Christian nation.

The above quotation shows the two sides: the Puritan or biblical worldview versus the Enlightenment or French worldview. So, which do you think is the American original?

I understand that the quote I selected is incomplete. What I found interesting was the admission that there were clearly two sides to the issue: the Enlightenment side and the Christian side. This is seldom acknowledged by the enemies of Christianity. While the details of these positions are numerous and can be confusing, the basic division is correct and reflects the long history of both sides from the Renaissance to the current era.

From a Christian perspective the Constitutional debates occluded the most important ingredient in the recipe for human government, probably because they assumed it — the Christian church. Note the absence of any reference to the Christian church in the debates. It is quite odd that the most powerful social institution of their own time appears to play no role in human government as envisioned by the founders. Am I wrong about this? If so, point me to the references, other than the proverbial separation clause.

Of course church and civil governments are to be separated. They have different jurisdictions. The Founders all knew and understood this because they were students of Calvin. About ninety percent of all Protestant Christianity at the time was Calvinistic, and Calvin set the standard for Protestant church theology and order. Calvin’s importance in this debate cannot be overemphasized (not the man, obviously. He was dead — but his work). Those who were members of churches understood this and submitted themselves to church government. And those who were not members were not members precisely because they refused to submit themselves to church government. Indeed, this was the genesis for the proliferation of Protestant denominations — still is.

The point is that from that Calvinist Christian perspective, church government played the critical role between the federal (civil) government and the individual (conscience), not the state (civil) government. Thus, by substituting “state government” for “church government” in the debates the actual role of church government was constitutionally defined to play no significant role in government, other than an amorphous “inspiration” to do the “right” thing. Individuals in the newly construed U.S. would be governed by this amorphous religious and largely undefined morality without teeth because the “real” struggle was defined as being between the newly conceived federal government and the existing states government.

I don’t want to make light of the relationship between the national and state governments, it is very important. However, by placing the focus of the enduring debate in the civil realm, and occluding the role of the church and its role in moral development, the moral or religious realm slowly collapsed from neglect over the following centuries. Of course, the Founders mostly understood morality from a Christian perspective, and lived it. But as Washington said, our government is explicitly for people who understand and practice morality from a Christian perspective, and will not work without this key element.

Well, over time and through neglect Christian morality in society generally has been lost — central and key elements of that morality have even been lost by most Christians! The foundational institutions of family and church have been collapsed. And our government isn’t working as it was designed. And to resurrect the Constitution apart from the necessary foundation of the Christian church and Christian family life is an invitation to a totalitarianism of a different stripe. What is missing is personal moral restraint, and the civil government cannot produce that. It is the job of the church to teach and encourage it.

While Jefferson thought that a Constitutionally mandated religion or morality would be an expression of tyranny (I agree), the greatest tyrannies that haunt the pages of history have Constitutionally mandated no religion. They have been intentionally and explicitly atheistic. So, Jefferson had the right concern, but he pointed it in the wrong direction. Jefferson tore civil government from the fabric of the existing American culture that was primarily based upon the Christian church. He separated civil government from the environment for which it was designed.

He was undoubtedly driven to do this because of the various abuses of authority in the churches. There have always been plenty of such abuses, and they will undoubtedly continue until the Lord returns. But over time Christianity has actually matured — oh, how I hope that individual Christians will catch up with the historical maturity of Christian history. Apparently, the bulk of our contemporary churches and their members prefer personal ignorance to the maturity of historic faithfulness.

And so now, we have federal, state and local governmental abuses beyond measure because Jefferson didn’t want Jesus Christ to impinge upon his precious desire for freedom from religious moral authority. Is this any better than ecclesiastical abuses? More people will be hurt by a faulty federal government than a faulty church. And, in order to get the federal government right, we need to first get the church right (the foundation). Getting the church right will contribute greatly to getting the federal government right. But getting the federal government right without consideration for the church will simply continue to produce more errors and problems.

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4 comments for “Constitutional Clarity

  1. July 24, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Phil, Excellent article. I’m not convinced that Washington and other founders simply left the church out because it was so central to their way of life. To me, the quote that the path of true piety is so obvious it needs no political direction, emphasizes the founders’ deliberate separation of church and state. It seems to me that when one follows a path of true piety (Christian or otherwise) government is understood as a vehicle of man, a social construction meant to address mundane concerns. The biblical quote by Jesus, “Render unto Cesar, Cesar’s due” comes to mind. I tend to think the founders had such a sophisticated understanding of Jesus’ teachings that they very intentionally separated church and state. So, while they were Christian, they would not presume to mandate a Christian way of life to everyone, but protect the right of the individual to follow their own conscience in such matters – keeping the arena of religion sacred and out of politics for the public beneft.

    Are we saying the same thing?

  2. July 24, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    The Founders were themselves a mixed bag. Some were Christian and some were not. Those who weren’t, like Jefferson, worked to employ the language of the Constitution to appeal to both Christians and non-Christians in order to create a broad-based national unity. The purpose of the Constitution was not to honor Christ, but to create a nation. And it has done both of these things: not honored Christ and created the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world, which has increasingly attracted godless and greedy people.

    The Founders thought that basic Christian values were part of the American genetic code, if you will — that they would always dominate socially. So, they created a government for such people — and it works very well for such people.

    But over time, our common Christian values have been drained away — very intentionally! And we are now at the point in our history where we are discovering that our system of government does not work for a people who are not fundamentally Christian.

    We need to be careful about following one’s own conscience — apart from the light of Christ — because it is a recipe for disaster. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Conscience is developed by the Holy Spirit in the light of Christ through Scripture. So, within these strictures, yes, follow your conscience.

    It is not that religion should be kept out of politics, but that church and state (church government and civil government) have different jurisdictions. And when they merge we get either religious totalitarianism or secular totalitarianism. Both are disastrous. The basic fault lines of history over 2,000 years shows that this has been a major problem.

    The Founders were trying to solve that problem by balancing government between church and state, but also between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. They knew that sinful people would abuse power, so they rightly thought that no one person nor any branch of government should dominate the others. Checks and balances were the key.

    And it worked well as long as Christians played a major role in each area of balance. Today, Christians play less and less a role, and are forbidden to name or practice their faith in the process.

  3. August 3, 2009 at 7:07 pm


    Good article. I enjoyed it. Have you read Gary North’s work in Political Polytheism? Or his e-book, Conspiracy in Philadelphia?

    The latter is an expansion and reworking of part 3 from the former. Both attempt to show that the Constitutional Convention was a departure from Christianity and a violation of the governmental covenant before God, rather than a renewal of that covenant.

    I have not read them myself, but I understand them to be quite good. They are in my “to read” stack!

  4. August 4, 2009 at 6:15 am


    I have read Political Polytheism and found it compelling. It seems clear to me that fussing with politics or Constitutional issues will not effective for Christ unless and until the churches begin to get it mostly right. The church is the foundation upon which the civil government rests. Thus, the church is the more critical issue.

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