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Is America Based on Biblical Principles?

July 15, 2009

No.

Note, this doesn’t mean that the so-called “founding fathers” weren’t Christian—clearly some of them were. However, that doesn’t mean America’s political principles came from the Bible.

There are two ways that America could have been based on biblical principles. First, the founding fathers could have turned to the Bible for explicit commands (like “love they neighbor”) or they could have turned to the Bible for implicit models (for instance, by looking how the early church organized itself). The instructions given to the ancient Israelites might fall between these two—some might accept ancient Israel as a model while insisting that the explicit commands given in the law only applied at that time and place.

So, lets consider several key features of the American political system.

  1. Three Branches of Government: There is neither an explicit command for this nor a model.
  2. Checks and Balances among the Branches: n/a (see above).
  3. Limited Federal Powers: There is neither an explicit command for this nor a model.
  4. Popular Sovereignty: No. Even the political models in which rulers were charged with caring for the populous did not require rulers to be in any way directly responsible to the people. If anything, the laws were God’s laws and the people didn’t have any right to say anything about them at all.
  5. Elections: I’m sure there is a model for casting ballots somewhere in the Bible. However, I bet there are more examples for casting lots. In the Hebrew scriptures kings were appointed by God (through prophets).
  6. Judicial Review: No.
  7. Freedom of Religion: The models and explicit commands are of ridiculously intolerant theocracy (see the laws about idolaters and the stories about Josiah, for instance).
  8. Freedom of Speech: No.
  9. Free Markets: No.
  10. Right to Bear Arms: I can’t think of any guaranteed rights, although there seem to be no prohibitions on arms—although Jesus did make Peter put his sword away that one time.
  11. No Quartering of Troops: No.
  12. Due Process: I imagine you could justify this one—there are a few protections for accused individuals in the Israelite law.
  13. Right to Trial by Jury: No.

One out of thirteen is not good.

Some might try to argue that all of these things follow from the golden rule. Please don’t try; you would just look foolish. In addition, the golden rule is found in many other cultural and religious traditions, so if all this is based on that rule, then there is nothing particularly biblical about it.

This idea that America is obviously based on biblical principles only works if you take it for granted and don’t demand any evidence.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2009 8:07 pm

    I always thought America was based on Enlightenment principles.
    The Enlightenment has very little to do with the Bible, unless the idea that humanism was a development in thought that relied upon Europe’s Christian heritage. I can see that argument but I don’t like it, because I am not fond of humanism (although in its early renaissance form its not so bad) or the enlightenment.

    The USA as an institution (as opposed to other aspects of the USA since plenty of people went there for very different reasons) is a product of 18th century freemasonry, that’s what I was always taught.

    However half the things you mention are not even necessarily enlightenment (although certainly they relate to it) but simply natural developments of anglo-saxon common law. Anglo-saxon “we’re the best because we’re so liberal” rhetoric goes back a very long way as it happens, its a very fascinating area of history, although it relates somewhat to a wider North European culture (the Althing in Iceland etc.)

    I find it stifling and frustrating. I have a much more “collectivist” (as Ayn Rand my nemisis would say) worldview compared to most North Europeans. But I respect the idealism… in the South you get an attitude toward corruption that it is just how the world is, why be concerned. But efficient governance makes a difference, it’s important.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 16, 2009 9:08 am

    Yes, I think that existing European legal systems, humanism, enlightenment thought, SOME Christian thought, etc., all contributed to American legal principles when it began. (I don’t know anything about freemasonry, so I won’t comment on that).

    But here in America there are a lot of people who insist that America was based on biblical principles—the type who want to erect monuments to the 10 commandments everywhere.

    But I think they are best understood as fighting an identity war with propaganda—if they say America=the Bible over and over and over again, then the privilege awarded to Christianity will not seem unfair but natural and warranted.

  3. July 16, 2009 12:19 pm

    Random comment about the right to bear arms and the bible:

    My beloved Jesus-the-schizophrenic-savior has some conflicting thoughts on swords, it seems. This passage below confuses me a bit, and I’m too lazy at the moment to walk over to my bible commentary and look it up. Whatever his reasons, I’ve never claimed that Jesus was the most rational fellow.

    Luke 22:36-38 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    July 17, 2009 6:51 am

    Nice passage. The bible is so friggin weird.

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