America’s Real Religion: Looking at the Philosophical and Theological Ideas Behind Our Constitution

September 20, 2010 - 2:44 pm 90 Comments

John Adams:

“Statesmen my dear Sirs, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand…. The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure, than they have it now, They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies. …

America’s Real Religion: Looking at the Philosophical and Theological Ideas Behind Our Constitution




“We the people…” Familiar words? Without cracking a history book or knowing much about civics, experientially each of us knows that the personal and national “blessings of liberty” are at first hard won, and for many of us, not truly appreciated or not fully realized among us. We realize the difficulty in writing out one’s own character, its values and ethics as a daunting task- but to create a large diverse group’s charter or system of laws approaching the scale of our Constitution, is truly awesome and admirable endeavor to complete. During this next week, we celebrate and recall the Constitution, as one of the most remarkable documents in the history of humankind.Few things are as they were in 1787. Yet, what we can still be assured of is the lasting need for a generous measure of personal freedom and for ongoing religious inquiry. This combines with the admission that the evolution of culture and law is often tedious and slow, but that reality should not frustrate or deny the necessity to reform both the culture and law.

To my dismay, it seems as if the only group that makes an active or concerted connection between theology and politics are the evangelical Christians or the religious right. People, such as Pat Robertson,


Who is prone to declare erroneously that ” God is on the side of the Constitution!” This assumption and so many that are like it, has to be effectively countered!

I do not know how he arrived at that conclusion! The word, God, is nowhere to be found in the text!

After some hours of investigation, I would like to begin to counter some of those popular assertions. Today, I will offer to you another, more inclusive and more open perspectives… Ones that might truly surprise and might even delight you….

Like any other momentous change or innovation, it is easy and glib to say that our national Constitution is a totally unique, even an inspired document! That it was diligently crafted and defiantly drafted by 55 illustrious, well educated men of great good will and enormous perspicacity. While this outlook is an almost pious and certainly generous assessment, we who hold a more balanced view, are tempered by the reason they so esteemed, to state that such a sociopolitical marvel as a Constitution did not uniquely appear complete or arrive full blown like Minerva from Jupiter’s head- already mature and wise!

Most principles of governance, human relations, and philosophy build upon previous precedence- foundational studies, formative prior cases, or at the very least, trial and error.


As learned men of their generation, these Founding Fathers drew on the rich resources of Greek or classical thought, on their own contemporary and European philosophers, and on current scientific discoveries. They also drew keen insights from the ongoing tumultuous outcomes of European politics.

When all these sources combine, and then taken in and aided by their own reason and life experiences, these learned but fallible men came together to hammer out each article and debate each clause.

Consequently, their sources are many, and multifaceted, and the are the clear results of human thought, therefore their finished result can hardly be worthy of divine revelation! It is good to remember that Jefferson, and later Lincoln, stated that they believed that the Constitution should be updated every 20 years!

Additionally, some of the working models for that document were taken from antiquity, others sections from more original and contemporary thinkers. Here are two startling examples:

There was, living in Philadelphia at this time, an Italian statesman named Philip Mazze, who had already founded the Constitutional Society in 1776. The signers of the earlier Declaration of Independence could not have missed hearing about Mazze’s contention that a pluralistic nation like ours needed some sort of unifying, mutually agreed upon Constitution-


one that would bind the individual states into an organized Federal body for mutual protection and the common good.

A second potential source, which was startling to me at first, was the discovery that there already was a forerunner or already established working model for cooperative and peaceful organization among neighboring nations. It was found in none other than the 9 Iroquois Native American nations of the greater Northeastern region.

These nine nations gathered together to share, to trade, and to offer one another group protection. Each nation agreed to a nonaggression pact that began with the words, “We, the people.” These nations invested their chieftains with diplomatic powers to settle disagreements, establish a code of civility, and oversee social interaction. This pact made each tribe an equal partner in any decision-making, and each was a participant and equally responsible for keeping harmony and the social order for the common good.

Other contributing factors to the ideas of the founders are easily discovered in the principles of Greek Athenian democracy, especially in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Other sources include European social ferment, and the writings of those European philosophers who were champions of an flexible government that remained firm on personal freedoms.


These Constitutional ideals were not to be compared to narrowly conceived theological treatises as much as they were the progreessive result of all the broad philosophical outcomes from the Age of Enlightenment.

Our Colonial intellectual giants- Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Paine, and Madison all spent time in Europe, and frequently debated and exchanged ideas with proponents of various social, political, and economic theorists concerning the nature of government, and the individual’s relationship to common law, or one’s ethical responsibility to the State.

Here are some of the leading philosophical sources that significantly influenced the authors of our Constitution: Jean Jacques Rosseau: He advocated for a new level of personal sovereignty, an autonomy, and a freedom that would be foundational to the idea of a participatory Citizenship- He stated that freedom and responsibility are closely linked, and that an informed participation in civics and citizenry are the marks of a healthy, constructive adult.Voltaire: His stance was to be in vigorous opposition to any state run church or system of belief. He stridently protested against any government’s right to limit the expression of personal liberties, especially those whose aim was to constrain religious freedom.6

John Locke:Probably the greatest influence would be given to his writings and outlooks. (And as you might know, Locke had previously written a governmental charter for South Carolina, that was, unfortunately, never adopted!) He declared that no magistrate or governmental policy has the slightest authority over a person’s conscience. Religion, for Locke, is a matter of inner conviction, not outer compulsion or any creedal coercion. He believed that the rights of conscience must hold sway, and be more respect worthy than any social convention or any governmental rules.

Locke was definitive when he said, a government rules only by the consent of the people it governs, and that life, liberty and livelihood are among a person’s inalienable rights. (it was Jefferson who first penned the idea that property or livelihood was a right… But later chose in his final editing of the declaration to widen the pursuit to happiness!)

More specifically, what did these Founding Fathers believe? What was the “American” religion that so influenced their thought and convictions? Surprisingly enough, well maybe not so surprising, the predominant outlook or prevailing theological viewpoints among the authors was a liberal, dissenting Christianity or an

unorthodox more personally defined Theism that would be considered to be Unitarian or Deist. Although there were, numerically, more Anglicans and Baptists, the


most preeminent thinkers and contributors were men such as Washington and Franklin who were Deists. 70 % of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and many of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention can be generally identified as dissenting from religious orthodoxy- many were either Unitarians or Universalists in their thoughts and beliefs. Included in this leading edge and inspirational guidance were four of the first six Presidents; not bad for a small bunch of religious whippersnappers and religiously rebellious thinkers!

As men of the Enlightenment, and as the product of the best quality education of their times, they sought a personal expression of religion that was reasonable and that could support and could harmonize with their political and governmental views. They believed, that it was one’s ethical beliefs that can come from a dissenting or more rational theology, that underlies all other choices and decisions, and helps to formulate each of their convictions, even if they are unorthodox or agnostic.

They further proposed that each person has, as her or his inherent right, to pursue their own religious answers and to express those ideals without any governmental interference.


These Constitutional authors believed that one’s religious expression comes out of an inner yearning or an aspiration- a desire that seeks to reconcile or complement what a person can observe or rationally trust and know. …

Now, let’s briefly look at two versions of liberal belief common to our Constitutional ancestors: Deism and early Unitarianism. (Universalism followed much of the mainline Christianity of its day, except for believing in the harsh doctrines of Heaven & Hell, or exclusive faith based Salvation, so it was still branded heretical!)

Deism has been characterized as the premier religion for the age of Reason. It is formulated by natural observation, common sense, and empirical reasoning. Its view of a God has come down to us most popularly as the cosmic clock maker- a Presence or Power that initially winds up the mechanism of the universe, and then steps back, and allows it to unwind over time… This unwinding process is also our human and societal process. “God” is no longer directly involved. “God” steps back, admires what deity has intelligently designed, and then leaves humankind to its own devices, which we optimistically call our capacity for reason and our personal and ethically based responsibility that is called free will.


Washington, Paine, and Franklin were all best-known Deists. Through their writings we can conclude that their highest conception of a God was closer to a Divine Providence, a grace, or good fortune. Deists do not believe in miracles, but affirmed that through the exercise and acuity of reason, plus the careful observation of the laws of Nature, that whatever there was of supreme worth and value could be discerned.

How did this philosophy impact our formative government? One incident explains it well. George Washington had idealistically hoped that all the various aspects of Christianity could unite around their own universal ideals- from the prophet Micah:

“To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” However, Washington could not abide any imposed restraint or claims of superiority by one group of Christians over another. He said that he would not tolerate church favoritism in government or any deference given to a particular religious group. In the Treaty of Tripoli, he stated this definitive assessment of the relationship between religion and government:

“The government of the United states is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion… Or any other religion. It is founded on the freedom of religion.” It seems as if the conservative preachers have missed that one! If they did miss it, I have the tee shirt to


prove that he did say it!

The whole idea that any one religious approach should be politically powerful is in a clear contradiction to the Founding tents of freedom.

The early Unitarians, such as Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, chose to keep a closer Biblical basis for their faith, but refused to accept ancient creeds or theological conjecture about God or Jesus. They, too, believed that religion is informed by science, and that our human religious understanding can rightly move beyond first century conclusions and comprehension…

They saw that the fear of the unknown is pernicious, and we should seek to replace the unknowable and the unproveable with a lifelong moral conscience and as a sign of maturity and awareness, extends itself to be concerned with all human welfare.

(See my sermons on Jefferson & Priestley)

With the upcoming national elections, the time has come for our religious congregations to champion the guarantee and preservation of religious liberties.

If successful, we can begin to assert that religious freedom remains our Constitutional legacy. Ours is the challenge to work cooperatively to preserve, protect, and promote an inclusive, and compassionate model for religion as our best way to ensure that the vision and purpose of “We The people” will be maintained and preserved.





So Be It!

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