The Political Theory of Christ
Christ and the American Constitution
by Jefferson White
This is Chapter Six of The Political Theory of Christ (2015).
The reader will recall that in the chapter entitled “Christ Against the Christian Empire” we began by noting that there were two great Christian empires during the years 600-1200 AD. Our concern, however, was with the Christian empire of the West, because it was in that empire alone that the development of Christ’s political theory continued.
In the East, the church was locked into a complete subordination to the state, a situation that continues to this day. In the West, however, there was a deepening separation of powers, both between the church and the state, and within the church and the state. The political history of the West consists of that deepening separation of powers.
By 1800, a similar spiritual divide was now emerging between America and Europe. On both continents, the modern secular state was taking shape. But there was a radical difference between the European and the American conceptions of a secular state. In Europe, in the nineteenth century, Christianity was increasingly marginalized within society by the direct actions of the state. The European understanding of the word “secular” was increasingly coming to mean that European society was to become “non-religious.” Logically speaking, this was nonsense. Since there is only one reality, all politics is religious and all religion is political. What we call politics and religion are merely differing aspects of one reality. What European “secularists” really wanted, after the French Revolution, was not that Europe should become “non-religious,” but that it should become “non-Christian.” What the European secularists wanted was that Europe should become pagan.
The more perceptive among nineteenth century Europeans understood that this process was already well underway. However, this kind of secularism, at the popular level, remained more an aspiration than a social reality. Since most Europeans were still Christians, at least in formal adherence, the secularization of European society took place mainly among the intellectual and political elites, rather than among the people. Even so, the overall tendency of the elite was to de-Christianize European life as much as possible, while retaining the veneer of living within a Christian state.
Especially in the last half of the nineteenth century, certain prophetic voices arose to declare that the future of Europe was to be “socialist” and “scientific” – the two ideas generally went together – and that this was to be Europe’s new spiritual destiny. In the twentieth century, those prophecies were fulfilled by the rise of the pagan political religions of German National Socialism and Russian Communism. These two political religions then proceeded to bathe the world in blood. Tens of millions of people died in mass warfare, while tens of millions more died in extermination camps.
In 1934, in a book entitled Unto Caesar, the Anglo-German journalist Fredrick Voigt wrote:
We have referred to Marxism and National Socialism as secular religions. They are not opposites, but are fundamentally akin, in a religious as well as a secular sense. Both are messianic and socialistic. Both reject the Christian knowledge that all are under sin and both see in good and evil principles of class or race. Both are despotic in their methods and their mentality. Both have enthroned the modern Caesar, collective man, the implacable enemy of the individual human soul. Both would render unto this Caesar the things which are God’s. Both would make man the master of his own destiny, establish the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. Neither will hear of any Kingdom that is not of this world.1
In 1945, a still-Christian America, together with its chief allies – a still-Christian Great Britain and a Communist Soviet Union – liberated Europe from German National Socialism. In 1989, after forty-four years of a long and often bloody Cold War, Central and Eastern Europe were liberated from Communism. The Soviet Union would collapse in 1991. In China, the Communist elite, while putting down a democratic revolt, rapidly converted to a state-controlled capitalism as the new pragmatic foundation of Chinese society. The political religions, after so much blood, had failed.
However, the destruction of these pagan religions did not immediately – or even finally – alter the spiritual trajectory of the world. By the year 2000, even though Western Europe had been free and democratic for more than fifty years, the spiritual aspiration of its elites remained socialistic and messianic. With the creation of the new European Union, at the very end of the twentieth century, a pagan and technocratic elite now aspired to rule the whole of Europe while progressively eliminating democracy as the political foundation of their new European order.
Also, by the end of the twentieth century, just a minority of Europeans remained Christians. Europeans were also ceasing to reproduce. Demographers predicted a European population implosion over the next century in which whole nations were expected to disappear. At the same time, particularly in the northwest of Europe, millions of Muslims poured into a beckoning European welfare state. They were welcomed by the European elite, who saw this immigration as means to overcome democratic resistance to bureaucratic governance, since they saw the new immigrants as the eager clients of that bureaucratic governance.
The death of Christianity in Europe, along with the coming demographic death of Europe, marks a fundamental change in history of Europe. By the twenty-first century, however, the majority of the world’s Christians no longer lived in either Europe or North America. Between the years 1800 and 2000, Christianity had left its old European and North American heartlands and was rapidly expanding throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In the twentieth century, even as the political religions were attempting to destroy the West, the numbers of believers in Christ rose rapidly in the non-Western world. Indeed, by the year 2000, Christianity had become the world’s first truly global religion. As the Christian faith expired in Europe, it became the faith of one-third of the world’s population.2
America, until the second half of the twentieth century, was part of this expanding Christian world. During the first half of the nineteenth century, a Christian secular republic had been created in America. This Christian secular republic rested upon the promise of complete freedom of private religious belief and practice, but rested as well on an explicitly Christian – indeed Protestant Christian – understanding of the necessary relationship of Christian morality to society and politics. In America, a Christian secular state was created to guarantee to Americans their right to shape society according to their personal Christian beliefs. The word “secular,” as that word was understood by most nineteenth century Americans, did not mean “non-religious.” It simply meant: “non-denominational.”
The American understanding of Christ’s political theory rested upon the American conviction that it was impossible to have religious freedom unless one were free to act upon one’s religious beliefs. This meant that Americans were free to act upon their religious beliefs in the creation of their society and politics. American society was assumed to be Christian, because most Americans were Christians. Because the majority ruled in America, America was necessarily a Christian nation whose laws and customs would reflect a generic Christian morality. And because there were so many varieties of Christians in America, American society was assumed to be a non-denominational Christian society.
The American political experiment thus created the deepest separation of powers ever attempted: a general Christian political and social order based upon the freedom of individuals to practice their religion as the basis of that society.
In an earlier chapter, we were concerned solely with the Christian empire of the West, while ignoring the Christian empire of the East, since the western Christian empire alone continued the development of Christ’s political theory. From this point forward, we will be concerned solely with America’s political history, since it is America alone that has – since 1800 – continued the development of Christ’s political theory.
Christ and the American Constitution
Today, there are two views about the men who wrote America’s Constitution.
The first view, which was held by most Americans of the nineteenth century and is still held by what may be a majority of Americans today, is that the American Founders were Protestant Christians who devised a Constitution based upon Christian principles. The second view, which became the dominant view among the American elite during the first half of the twentieth century, is that the Founders’ religious beliefs were purely formal and vestigial, and that the Constitution was entirely secular in its meaning and intent. According to this view, the American Founders created the first “non-religious” state in history.
Neither of these two views is accurate. However, the belief that the Founders were Protestant Christians who devised a Constitution based upon Christian principles is closer to the truth. Most of the men who attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were self-identified Christians and most were more or less orthodox in their religious beliefs. None were secularists according to the modern definition of that word, which it is now understood to mean “non-religious.” Some of the more famous Founders, including some who were not at the Convention, were not orthodox Christians. But every one of the Founders believed that society and government were inherently religious. Every one of them believed that the principles of the Christian religion – rightly understood – constituted the foundation of constitutional government.3
At the same time, however, the American Founders were eighteenth century rationalists. This meant that the political principles of Christianity were understood by them in largely secular terms. They believed that secular political principles were ultimately divine, because the whole of life was a reflection of the divine, but they believed that it was Christian principles – as rationally understood – that constituted a true knowledge of the divine. Most also believed that those principles lay at the heart of every religion, but were best exemplified in Christianity, since Christianity – again, rightly understood – was the most advanced religion. But Christianity was the most advanced religion because its principles were the most rational and not because its principles were Christian. Concerning the various Christian churches of the day, many of the Founders considered them to be not very rational at all. Therefore, for many of the Founders, it was their belief in a secular rationalism that they thought best expressed Christian principles.
If this seems confusing to most of us today, it is because this understanding of religion largely disappeared after the Founding era. Indeed, this is why today’s orthodox Christians and secularists can both lay claim to the Founders, since the beliefs of the Founders do contain something of both worlds. If today’s orthodox Christians are able to enthusiastically mine the Founders’ public statements for expressions of Christian political convictions, this is because such statements exist. And if modern secular liberals are able to enthusiastically mine the Founders’ public statements for expressions of purely secular beliefs about government, this is because those statements also exist. The historical truth is that the American Founders held their secular and religious beliefs in a unique intellectual tension that was peculiar to their time and class. In the two centuries since, orthodox Christianity in America has become less secular and rationalistic, while modern secularism has become more secular and rationalistic – meaning that it has become less Christian.
And this is why both Christians and secularists today tend to misunderstand the political – and the religious – character of the American Constitution. This is because the Founders intended their Constitution to be a completely secular document, while also believing that the political theory behind that secular document was profoundly religious.
Historian of American political theory Ellis Sandoz:
[For the Founders, there] is this higher law of God and nature intrinsic to man as the creature of the heavenly Creator and known to him through revelation, reason, and through experience of his natural inclination to the good…In so far as rights are “natural,” they rest on claims that can be asserted consequent to the nature of man and of the creation in their dependence upon God. The divine and natural orders are logically prior and ontologically superior to the social and political orders. Hence the rights that are natural as preserving the integrity of the creature in its participation in being are intrinsic to man as dimensions of his essence or humanity and are prior to political arrangements…4
As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in the correspondence of their old age:
The general Principles, on which [we] achieved Independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen [representing the numerous religious denominations of the country at the time of the Revolution] could Unite…And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which has united all parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence.
Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”5
The American War of Independence and the writing of the Constitution took place in a single generation. Therefore neither event can be understood apart from the religious convictions of that generation. Like the English Revolution of the previous century, the American Revolution was fought for secular reasons. But, just as in the English Revolution, those secular reasons cannot be understood apart from the religious beliefs that informed and energized them.
One also needs to distinguish between the religious beliefs held by the American elite of this era and those religious beliefs held by the average American. For the average American, the Great Awakening of the 1740s, a series of religious revivals that swept the colonies, was the seedbed of the Revolution.6 The most important political result of those revivals was that Americans, for the first time, began to organize across colonial boundaries. Before the 1740s, the American colonies largely faced outward to Great Britain and Europe. Because most of their trade was with Great Britain and Europe, the colonies had few internal ties. There was so little contact between the American colonies that it generally took longer to travel from one colony to another than it took to cross the Atlantic. One result of the Great Awakening was that a general religious revival now spilled across colonial boundaries and enabled the American people to discover, for the first time, a common identity.
The Great Awakening also produced two organized American religious parties, the first great mass organizations in American history. One party was made up of the churches who favored the revivals, while the other party was made up of the churches who opposed them. Both parties were Protestant, since Roman Catholics were less than one percent of the population during that era. Initially, it was the revivalist party that created the first extra-colonial American organizations. These organizations were not only the forerunners of the later political societies that would create the Revolution, but were quite often the same organizations.7
American colonial historian Patricia U. Bonomi:
From 1740 to 1776, thousands of provincials from every rank and section – Old Lights [anti-revivalists] as well as New [pro-revivalists] – became embroiled in political activity as a consequence of their religious loyalties. Denominations organized committees of correspondence, wrote circular letters, adjusted election tickets for religious balance, voted en bloc, and signed political petitions “as a Sabbaths-Day’s exercise”…Lay members, and in a number of cases clergymen themselves, provided the leadership for movements whose initially religious aims rapidly became indistinguishable from political ones.
In the long run it struck the provincials as more or less logical that the congregation should become the basic unit or cell of politics, and regional associations and synods the interconnecting tissue. As the number of congregations rose rapidly in the eighteenth century, denominational bodies often achieved a closer and more vital relationship with the people than did governmental institutions. The “federal” character and representative practices of most church governments made them efficient agencies for both religious and political activity…The congregation, moreover, unlike New England town government, was ubiquitous. It existed all over the colonies; and it reached out to rich and poor, men and women, the schooled and the unschooled.8
Two hundred years earlier, Queen Elizabeth had harnessed the rising Puritan religious sentiment of her time to the task of creating the first British empire. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the growing American resistance to the British crown would harness the growing evangelical religious fervor to create the American Revolution. In the words of historian Perry Miller: “The basic fact is that the Revolution [was] preached to the masses as a religious revival, and had the astounding fortune to succeed.”9
The secular political belief that animated the American Revolution was straightforward: “No taxation without representation.” The history of this slogan ran deep into the English past and descended from the Puritan Parliamentary struggle against the king. The American colonies, shortly after being settled, created their own local “parliaments” to deal with the King’s governors, and thus were used to dealing with issues of taxation and with resisting the authority of the crown. And then, during the 1760s and 1770s, the British king and Parliament declared their right to tax Americans without their consent. This assault upon what Americans believed to be the foundation of self-government led to the declaration of American independence in 1776.
The men who gathered in Philadelphia to issue that Declaration believed that the king, by claiming the right to tax the colonies without their consent, had violated the political covenant binding them to him. Nor could they now see any way to regaining their rights except by declaring independence. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the idea of a violated covenant was repeatedly invoked in American political discourse. From church pulpits, American preachers taught that the duty of the Christian was to uphold lawful authority, which meant that Christians had a duty to resist the unlawful acts of the king. In revolutionary America, political and religious beliefs merged into a united resistance to the authority of the crown.
For the Americans of 1776, as for the Puritans of the English Revolution, a belief in the existence of a political covenant between the ruler and the ruled was the key to understanding the nature of government. From the beginning of the American colonies, Americans understood themselves as a covenanted people. Virtually every American colony, town, and church had been founded by the creation of a covenant and each therefore viewed itself as self-governing according to a Calvinist understanding of the necessity of having a covenant to govern political and religious life.10
Jewish political philosopher and historian Daniel J. Elazar:
As Lord Acton, a Roman Catholic, once said, modern democracy derives more from the realities of congregationalism (the predominant form of church organization of the Puritans) than from the political thought of ancient Athens. To a great extent this is accurate both from an intellectual and practical standpoint. Intellectually, the principles of federal theology that gave rise to congregationalism fostered republican and democratic ideas. Practically, local congregations served as schools of self-government, while the presbyterian (the alternate system of the other Reformed Protestants) systems of nationwide organization served as models of federal republicanism.11
For most colonial Americans, government consisted of a covenant between the ruler and the ruled. This belief came from the Old Testament and was confirmed by the covenant created in the New Testament between Christ and His church. Although monarchy was the traditional government of Europe, the belief that monarchy was the government desired by God was not very widespread in colonial America. While most Americans viewed the British monarchy as a legitimate form of government, they considered it legitimate because the English king was limited in his political authority. They believed that the king was bound to a covenant that established the rights of the people.
By the eighteenth century, the Calvinist idea of a covenanted community under God had undergone a process of secularization. A constitutions was not the same thing as a covenant. And America’s elite now talked in terms of constitutions, rather than of covenants. But a constitution was universally understood by Americans to be a secular covenant.
Daniel J. Elazar:
The generation that achieved the Declaration of Independence, fought the Revolutionary War, and established the United States under its new constitution was led by two groups: one coming out of the older religious tradition, primarily the covenantal tradition of Reformed Protestantism who saw the imperatives of their tradition leading in the direction of a federal democratic republic under God, and the second group who came out of the Enlightenment, influenced primarily by the Scottish Enlightenment which was part of the covenantal tradition one step removed, who sought a federal democratic republic in North America as the way to actualize civil society. The great achievement of the Americans in their revolutionary era was that the moderates from both camps found a common language and a common program upon which to agree…12
The political theory that underlies the American Constitution is its separation of powers. The Founders believed that this separation was the only political architecture that could keep popular democracy from degenerating into a tyranny. They therefore constructed an elaborate division of political authority among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. However, the idea of separated powers, as we have argued throughout this book, is much more protean than this. Indeed, we will now argue that the Founders’ Constitution contains not just this separation of powers among the three branches of government, but also three additional separations of power. We will briefly examine each of these separations of power in turn.
[The remainder of this chapter, which is not reproduced here, is a brief overview of the three separations of power found in the American Constitution].
- Quoted in Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, From the French Revolution to the Great War (2005), 9.
- Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2006)
- For an overview of the relationship of Protestant belief to the American founding, see Thomas S. Engeman and Michael P. Zuckert (eds.), Protestantism and the American Founding (2004).
- Ellis Sandoz, A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding (1990), 192.
- As quoted in Sandoz, 115-116.
- See Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America (1986), chapters five through seven.
- Bonomi, Chapter five.
- Bonomi, 186.
- Quoted in Sandoz, 134-135.
- Donald Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (1988)
- Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Civil Society: The Constitutional Matrix of Modern Democracy (1998), 19-20
- Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Constitutionalism: The Great Frontier and the Matrix of Federal Democracy (1998), 10.