MAYFIELD, Ky. – March 4 was the 224th anniversary of the United States operating under its Constitution. Created in 1787, the document endured without legal standing for a year and a half as the different states sought to ratify it. The republic started functioning on the basis of the document on March 4, 1789. On that date the first Congress convened. Two years later, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were added in 1791. These additions gave the new republic a strong Bill of Rights that protected the liberties of individual citizens.
While the Constitution rarely mentions faith or faith issues, the Christian community in the United States has received many benefits from it – a fact that is often overlooked due to the scarcity of direct references. For instance, the document only acknowledges the Deity once – in Article VII, when the original Constitutional Convention gave the unanimous consent of the states present on the date “the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”
Two other direct faith allusions also are contained in the original document of 1787 and the subsequent Bill of Rights of 1791. In Article VI the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In the First Amendment contained in the Bill of Rights, the document reads, “Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” No Bible verses and/or expressions from historic Christian works are contained in the document.
In fact, the major influences on the men who drafted both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights originated from the writings of the enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries who, for the most part, believed that faith could be expressed purely by use of reason and intellect, and that God’s intervention in the process was not a necessary element – hardly a Christian concept.
For instance, Englishman Thomas Hobbes argued that government should be a contract between those that govern and the people. John Locke, taking up Hobbes’ theme in his work, Two Treatises of Government, felt that government should look out for the well-being of its citizens and respect their individual rights. He especially promoted the rights of “life, liberty, and estate” (or property) for all citizens. Interestingly enough, when Thomas Jefferson drafted most of Locke’s theme into the Declaration of Independence, he slightly revised Locke and instead wrote that the people had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps Jefferson thought that future American governments should not guarantee that all citizens possess a property entitlement. Locke’s phrase, however, does show up in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. In that amendment the document states that citizens cannot “be deprived of ‘life, liberty, or property’ without due process.” When the 14th Amendment applied federal guarantees to the individual states, the phrase and its context was repeated.
Other enlightenment philosophers also directly impacted the Constitution. Baron Montesquieu in his work, The Spirit of the Laws, proposed that government should be divided into branches. Each branch would then maintain “checks and balances” on the others – thereby limiting the power of each branch. Cesare Beccaria, along with Voltaire, expressed concerns about how citizens were punished. Beccaria’s concerns, published in his work, On Crimes and Punishments, advanced the principle that punishments should not be “cruel or unusual.” He obviously influenced the Eighth Amendment that bans such punishments.
Enlightenment philosophers, like Voltaire (in the Treatise on Tolerance) and others, ironically agreed with the Baptists and other communities of dissenting 18th century Christians and argued against the tyranny of state-supported churches. Voltaire, along with other like-minded philosophers, instead advocated that all faiths should be allowed to worship without state interference. This influence is most evident when the Founding Fathers abolished the religious tests for federal office seekers and created the First Amendment guarantee for religious liberty. While the constitutional convention operated in a society heavily influenced by a Christian worldview, the U.S. Constitution itself was a product of enlightenment thinking, and the United States became the first modern nation to base itself on enlightenment principles.
Nevertheless, the Christian community in the United States gained important benefits from the document. Many of these benefits should be noted. First and foremost, Christians in the United States are not forced to belong to state-mandated religious bodies, and in fact, such bodies are forbidden by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the same amendment allows Christians to worship free from state interference.
Many other benefits also are enshrined as constitutional rights. The abolition of religious tests in Article VI means that Christians do not have to meet criteria from another faith to be an office-holder. As noted in the First Amendment, Christians, like all Americans, also can exercise their free speech, assemble to worship, write and publish works about their faith without government interference, and also petition the government to redress grievances. In legal matters, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments give Christians and Americans in general due process in legal proceedings, a fair trial, the right to be heard by a jury, and the right against self-incrimination. American citizens of all faiths also are protected against “cruel and unusual punishments” by the Eighth Amendment. These are just the more notable examples of how the American Constitution positively impacts the Christian community.
While we American Christians enjoy these benefits, many Christians in other parts of the world do not possess these guarantees. As I write this article, Christians endure nearly unspeakable persecution in many parts of the world. They have no legal protection, are not allowed to assemble, and many are tortured and killed. I have watched in dismay as thousands of Middle Eastern Christians pour out of the historic heartland of the Christian faith to come to our shores. Here they can worship. In their home countries of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and the Holy Land, these historic Christian communities face discrimination, persecution and steep numerical decline. Today in the land where Jesus walked, only two percent profess Christianity, according to the CIA World Factbook: Israel.
As we acknowledge the difficulties that Christians face in many parts of the world, we also can thank the Almighty that we have the blessing and protection of the United States Constitution. These guarantees of religious liberty for the Christian community should never be taken lightly. Christians should involve themselves in the public affairs of the nation and conversely maintain exemplary citizenship. The Almighty does expect us to “give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Stephen Douglas Wilson is dean emeritus and chair of the history department of Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee.)