Three Christian moral ingredients at the American founding

May 28, 2019

A book on natural law and religious liberty that I am reading for an academic colloquium I am participating in is bringing to the forefront of my mind the uniqueness of the American founding and the moral principles that birthed our nation.

First, a word upfront: I offer the following comments in no way trying to advance a “Christian America” thesis. As a Baptist, I am resolutely committed to the idea of a nonconfessional state. At the same time, as a Baptist, I am firmly committed to the ideal that religion has tremendous latitude to shape a nation’s soul, even its laws.

The religious and moral backdrop of the nation informed the philosophical premises of the nascent American founding.

While the question of whose religious or moral vision reigned supreme during the Founding era is of perennial debate, it seems indisputable, to me at least, that Christianity was a moral grammar offering a rich tapestry of moral influence on the country’s philosophical architecture.

America’s founding and Christian ethics

In light of that presupposition (and knowing that historians will quibble and dispute what I will argue for), let me state what I believe are the three irreducible principles that made America, well, America; and then explain their relationship to Christian ethics:

  1. A belief in a stable and identifiable human nature.
  2. A belief in a universal morality known as Natural Law.
  3. A belief in limited government.

While I cannot say that the above principles are exclusive to Christianity alone, I do believe that Christianity informs each. In brief, let me walk through how Christianity touches on each.

When looking at the Founders’ understanding of humanity, they saw a portrait of the human person possessed with the capacity for virtue and vice. Humanity’s essence was not merely constructed; it is recognized as a divinely-endowed creature. There was a stable “nature”; that is, a way in which a human is expected to exist and function in order to fulfill the purpose of their existence. This is very much a pattern paralleling the Genesis account of God creating humanity (Gen. 1:26-28). The vision of government assumed by the Founders understood that citizens comprising the country would respond to the blessings of liberty and shirk at coercion as a constituent aspect of who humanity is as a liberty-seeking and meaning-making creature.

Perhaps looming most largely is the idea of natural law—the idea of a universal morality binding on all of humanity and accessible using one’s reason. The universe, in the Founders’ view, was orderly. Flourishing and “happiness” was found in accordance with a people and a country honoring the universal morality binding on its people. For the nation to prosper and its people be free, Americans would need to be virtuous. To live the virtuous life is to live in accord with right reason exhibited in one’s interactions with the world. For people to thrive, they need to obey what the Apostle Paul refers to as the “law written on the heart” (Rom. 2:14-15).

Lastly, limited government. Limited government springs from the idea that government does not have absolute power over every sphere of human existence. Many scholars point to Jesus’ declaration in Matthew 22:21 as the foundation for this idea: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” While most of us are familiar with Jesus’ teaching on this point by the sheer fact of familiarity, it is not an overstatement to say that this statement was revolutionary when first declared. According to Jesus, and how it has been understood through church history, government has legitimate areas of authority—paying taxes, punishing evil, etc. But government’s authority is not autonomous; it is a derived authority originating from God’s ultimate sovereignty.

A government that does not absolutize itself over the people under its watch is a government obeying its enumerated limits. This implies there are “pre-political” realities that dictate human purpose that the government has no say in dictating or defining, but in recognizing.

Why these principles?

Why these three principles? Why not mention “inalienable rights” or the “pursuit of happiness” or “checks and balances” as the abiding foundations of the American founding? Because each follow downstream from a prior moral ingredient. You do not have “rights” without a belief that humanity’s essence is identifiable and worth protecting; you do not have “happiness” and the worthwhileness of its pursuit apart from a universal concept of what “happiness” is, which implies natural law. You do not have checks and balances apart from a belief that human nature and the governments they form have a propensity toward amassing concentrated, absolute power that needs checked.

I am uncomfortable calling America a “Christian nation.” To say that, however, is not to dismiss or fail to recognize the profound ways that Christianity has impacted and informed basic elements of our constitutional order that we take for granted. May Christian influence remain.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. He is also a research fellow with the ERLC.  Read More by this Author