In America today, it is an article of faith among conservatives that the original political ideas of the United States are rooted in the Bible. Conservatives sometimes suggest that the American Founders were divinely inspired while composing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Glenn Beck, for example, has said, “It was God’s finger that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is God’s country!”1 Some hold that the values implicit in the Gospels were carried directly into America’s founding ideology. They treat America’s founding documents as a kind of “Third Testament”—a follow-through on the agenda and message of God Himself. In advocating that Bible-based ethics be taught in public schools, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly asserts, “Kids need to know what [the] Judeo-Christian tradition is because that’s what all of our laws are based on. That’s what the country’s philosophy is based on. . . . That’s what forged the Constitution.”2
But conservatives do no justice to the Christian Bible or to the Founders when they claim that the first provided the philosophical basis for the second. The Enlightenment ideas of America’s Founders were revolutionary, and the New Testament ideas of the previous two thousand years were a major part of what they were revolting against.
America’s Founders not only opposed political oppression, but they also called for a “wall of separation” between church and state;3 swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”;4 officially proclaimed that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”;5 defended the pursuit of earthly wealth and of personal happiness as moral virtues and inalienable rights—and fought a violent revolution to secure these worldly values.
The Founders were unabashedly men of reason. Although some were deists and some were Christians, they nevertheless shared a profound reverence for reason and, for the most part, regarded it as man’s fundamental guide in life. “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to his nephew. “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”6 And Thomas Paine, the man who wrote Common Sense, one of the most influential political pamphlets of the American Revolution, also penned The Age of Reason, which included a scathing attack on the veracity of the Bible.
The Founders were men of the Enlightenment, a period of dramatic scientific, technological, and political advances in the West. The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, spanned the mid 17th century to the late 18th century, and its defining characteristic was man’s application of reason to every concern. This is when Isaac Newton discovered basic truths of physics, Anton Lavoisier made dramatic advancements in chemistry, British farmers launched an agricultural revolution, and even some of the American Founders themselves made major scientific advancements. Benjamin Franklin, for example, discovered the electrical nature of lightning. In the realms of political and economic theory during this period, the Baron of Montesquieu wrote about the need for separation of powers in government; Adam Smith launched the science of economics; and John Locke published a defense of man’s inalienable rights to liberty and property—and, most crucially, the right to revolt against government when it violates those rights.
The Enlightenment resulted from the Renaissance—also known as the Rebirth of Reason—a period that reveled in the observation of the natural world. This period, in turn, followed from the era of the Scholastics, during which Thomas Aquinas had reintroduced Aristotelian logic into a world dominated by unadulterated Christianity for more than a millennia.
The advancements of the Enlightenment were driven not by faith-based theology but by observation-based rationality. The men of the time embraced and demonstrated the power of reason to understand and to reshape the world in which they lived. The scientific method used by Newton, Locke, and the other Enlightenment thinkers began with observation and proceeded by means of logic, more observation, more logic, and so forth. By using this method, the Enlightenment thinkers not only enriched the world with the values of their own particular discoveries and advancements, but also showed the world that both knowledge in general and progress in general resulted from this method, and that anyone who made an effort to look at the world and think could come to understand and innovate.
The Founders embraced this Enlightenment approach and applied it to questions of government and law. Observing King George III’s “establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” the Founders embarked on a revolutionary experiment—a declaration of independence and the establishment of a country based on the idea that in order to live good lives, that is, lives worth living—they needed to be free from tyranny. “Give me liberty, or give me death!” in the words of Patrick Henry. And they observed that in order to establish and maintain a free society it was necessary to establish a government dedicated to the protection of man’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Founders reasoned that the only appropriate role of government is “to secure these rights”—not to violate them, as King George had been doing via “a long train of abuses and usurpations”—and that
whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This was, for the first time in history, reason applied to the formation of a government, dedicating it to protection of the basic social requirement of man’s life: freedom.
After the Founders won the war, they set their minds to designing a political system, a key characteristic of which would be secularity. Not only did the Framers specify in the Constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ”; they also specified that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In addition to being the first government in history based on the concept of individual rights, this would be the first in history to be self-consciously secular.
Although disputed by some, the explicitly secular nature of the original U.S. government is understood by many people today. What many may not realize, however, is that the doctrines of the New Testament stand in complete opposition to the foundational values of the American Revolution and to the cultural mind-set that made it possible—and that, in the very act of revolution, the Founding Fathers patently and openly violated the commands of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers in virtually every respect. To see this, one need only read the Bible.
Over the centuries, many people have claimed to speak for Christianity, and, of course, interpretations of the text of the New Testament vary widely. For example, interpretations regarding the scriptural position on the propriety of violence range from that of Tomás de Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition at one extreme, to that of strict pacifists such as the Quakers at the other. But the New Testament speaks for itself.
Although the book contains contradictions, the New Testament’s dominant themes are stated clearly throughout the text and are unmistakable to anyone who reads it. What are these dominant themes? And how do they contradict the Founders’ actions and the values that fueled the American Revolution?
First, it is important to note that the New Testament does not explicitly spell out any political doctrine. It sets forth a code of morality, a code of right and wrong behavior, which is intended primarily for the individual. In this respect, Christianity is unlike both Islam and Judaism, which do include laws explicitly intended for political enforcement (as we are reminded regularly today in the case of Islam).
Although many Christians throughout history have attempted to enforce biblical morality by way of politics, this is not called for in the text of the New Testament, at least not directly. Jesus does not prescribe a form of government or any particular political system. He focuses instead on matters of right and wrong at the personal level. When he confronts a crowd preparing to stone to death a woman for adultery, for example, Jesus does not take a political stand per se; he takes a moral stand, saying “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”7 In other words, he applies his broader command, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”8 Jesus was not a political philosopher but a moral philosopher.
Nevertheless, the ethics laid out in the New Testament have something to say about the conduct of the Founders. Many Christians may be surprised to learn that the New Testament commands them to obey the laws of the government, whatever they happen to be. The following is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, a letter held by standard modern scholarship to be one of Christianity’s oldest texts:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.9
From such a passage it is obvious why Christian kings asserted a “Divine Right of Kings.” If I am king and my father was king before me, then this passage from Paul on its face requires Christians to obey me, as no less than God’s appointed agent on earth.
Such New Testament passages spiritually armed and propped up kings and governments for at least a thousand years before the American Revolution. Ideas such as “no taxation without representation” or “freedom of religion” could not have been conceived, much less implemented, in a culture steeped in the idea that rulers who bear the sword are God’s servants and thus divinely authorized to punish wrongdoers. In contrast to the Founders, who morally opposed “taxation without representation,” Paul here morally commands people to pay taxes no matter what.
Paul was not speaking abstractly about the sin of rebellion. The first and second centuries witnessed two bloody rebellions by Jews who sought political and religious independence from the Roman Empire, which resulted not in their independence but in the destruction of their famous Temple at Jerusalem and their enforced expulsion from Judea (the Diaspora). Jews who were not killed in battle or by crucifixion were subsequently enslaved.10
Another passage stressing the individual Christian’s moral duty to obey the state and other earthly masters can be found in a New Testament letter ascribed to St. Peter:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.11
Clearly, when the author speaks of living like “free people,” he does not mean freedom in the legal or political sense; if he did, the command for slaves to obey their masters here would make no sense at all. The “freedom” he speaks of is freedom from certain aspects of Mosaic Law, such as those pertaining to circumcision and kosher diet. Throughout Paul’s writing, the apostle argues that the death of Jesus had liberated Christians from certain traditional Jewish practices, even though those practices had been commanded by God through Moses on Mt. Sinai. As for the above commandment that slaves must submit to their masters, this is just one of four such commandments in the New Testament. Although, to their credit, many Christians argued for the abolition of slavery, there is no getting around the fact that slavery is explicitly condoned in the New Testament. Although the Founders did not abolish slavery, their codification of the principle of individual rights was incompatible with the practice and laid the groundwork for its abolition. Southern slaveholders, on the other hand, used the Bible to justify the institution of slavery.
Given that the New Testament commands Christians not only to obey the state, but also specifically to honor the emperor, it is worth noting that this passage was written in the age of emperors such as Caligula and Nero. The Founders refused to honor King George III, who, for all his flaws, was compassionate and benevolent in comparison to the rulers who lived when the New Testament was being written.
These unambiguous commandments to obey ruling authorities might be interpreted away if something in the scripture contradicts them. But nothing does. There is only more support for them. For example: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”12 And: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient.”13 And, of course, Jesus’ exhortation: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”14 For Christ, no conflict exists between one’s duties to the state and the commands of God. Indeed, on this score, they appear to be one and the same. This is the consistent and never-contradicted message of the scripture.
Jesus not only commanded Christians to pay their taxes; he also befriended tax collectors, one of whom, Matthew, was counted among his twelve main disciples. Jesus exhorted his followers to be meek (“the meek shall inherit the Earth”), to be “peacemakers,” to turn the other cheek when struck, and to love their enemies. Here’s what Jesus said at the Sermon on the Mount, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.15
This is a remarkable passage. On its face, it requires a Christian to submit to any form of aggression under any circumstances, however extreme. By its plain meaning, even basic self-defense is not a moral option for a faithful Christian. When hit, as a good Christian, you should not fight back. Neither should you run away. You should not even block the blow with your arm. Instead, you should offer yourself to another blow.
Indeed, Jesus says that when people are assaulted they should actually aid their enemies, as in this passage from the Gospel of Luke:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.16
There doesn’t appear to be any wiggle room here. Do not resist evil; rather, submit to aggression. Love and actively assist your enemies. Don’t just lend your enemies money; give them money.
Some people claim that such exhortations should be read very narrowly—for instance, turn the other cheek once, because that’s all Jesus mentions. The right to self-defense kicks in after that, some have argued. Such strained interpretations, however, divorce the ideas from the wider context—the fact that these kinds of commandments are made repeatedly throughout the New Testament, that they are all of the same theme, and that nowhere does Jesus suggest these requirements ever cease to be requirements.
Others argue that Jesus was not ending the concept of an “eye for an eye” but merely correcting a misinterpretation of it. (This, they argue, explains the form this instruction takes: “You have heard it said . . .”) Although the “eye for an eye” doctrine remains the correct principle of justice, the argument goes, it is not a license to seek personal vengeance, and which is all that Jesus was prohibiting. But the commandment to turn the other cheek is not presented as an admonition not to take the law into one’s own hands or not to seek personal revenge. The commandment is formulated to provide guidance in the very moment one is attacked—in that moment, says Jesus, one must turn the other cheek. If this only prohibited some later response of personal vengeance, Jesus’ specific example would be morally empty. Jesus clearly has specified, considered, rejected, and admonished against self-defense. “Resist not evil” means resist not evil. Indeed, this explains why some Christian sects, such as the Quakers, are strictly pacifist to this day.
Further evidence supporting the literal meaning of these commandments can be found in passages such as the one in which Jesus reprimands Peter the only time in the Gospels any of the disciples are depicted using weapons. “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’”17
Importantly, however, neither Jesus nor Paul ever implies that the state should refrain from using force. Paul explicitly asserts that it is for good reason that governing authorities hold “the sword.” They are the appointed agents of God’s vengeance.
Readers of the Gospels will notice that Jesus only criticizes Jewish religious authorities, never Roman legal authorities. In fact, Jesus went so far as to say of a Roman centurion, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith”18—and he did so in the face of widespread Jewish anger, which would soon lead to revolt against Rome. Jesus praised the “Redcoats” of his time.
How could Jesus have advocated pacifism and yet still have personally attacked the Temple? Jesus also said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”19 Jesus did not advocate pacifism for himself or for God or for government; he advocated pacifism only for everyone else. Thus, whereas both God (in heaven) and the state (on earth) may rule men by force or the threat thereof, the individual Christian is morally prohibited from taking any action in self-defense.
All of this is consistent with Jesus’ crowning example of self-sacrifice: his exemplary willingness to die on the cross for the sake of humanity. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” said Jesus, as he set the overarching example for all of Christianity:20 the example of altruism, the idea that being moral consists in sacrificing for the sake of others, submitting to their authority, and even refraining from defending oneself against violent enemies.
Upon consideration, it is clear that the New Testament calls for complete submission to aggression. Whereas the Founders of America said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”—the unequivocal message of Christ was: Give me tyranny, or whatever God’s representative dictates.
Needless to say, this is not the way most Christians today interpret the moral message of the New Testament. This is because Christian theologians, over time and of necessity, have worked to blur the message to make it less patently self-destructive and more compatible with civilization. But the meaning of scripture is plain, repeated, and never contradicted in the scripture itself.
How did Christians, over time, come to interpret the New Testament in a way that permitted resisting evil, defending against attacks, and even killing one’s mortal enemies? It was a long, slow process; we’ll briefly consider two major, pivotal points.
Writing in about 400 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo distinguished between justice and righteousness. Although the law might permit self-defense, he contended, it was still morally wrong for a Christian to kill someone even in self-defense. A “more powerful, hidden law” morally forbids a Christian from killing even in self-defense, acknowledged Augustine, but the legality is another matter.21 In effect, said Augustine, a Christian should act in accordance with the Gospel, regardless of the law.
Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas made a substantial adjustment to this approach. Reflecting the worldly rationality of his historical mentor Aristotle, Aquinas regarded self-preservation as a good thing, a natural desire, and a goal that makes everything else possible. He distinguished between the intended consequences of acting in self-defense (i.e., valid self-preservation) and the unintended consequence (the potential death of the attacker). Still saddled with elements of biblical doctrine, Aquinas argued that if a man acting in self-defense kills the attacker intentionally, that is morally unacceptable; but, he continued, here applying an element of Aristotelian rationality, if a man acting in self-defense kills the attacker accidentally—if all he intends is to preserve his own life—then that is morally acceptable. In that case, he should not be held morally responsible for the attacker’s death. As Aquinas saw it, one is naturally and correctly bound to have greater concern for one’s own life than for the lives of others in such contexts.22
On its face, as we have seen, the text of the New Testament contradicts Aquinas’s position. But this is how Christian thinking, over time, became more amenable to self-defense: by means of men such as Aquinas introducing into the fray elements of Aristotelian worldliness and logic. (It is worth noting that Aquinas still denied the right of self-defense to members of the clergy, who he said should follow a higher standard and imitate Christ.)23
Aquinas’s position was supremely influential, and, at long last, after centuries of a kind of Christian pacifism, self-defense (at least for non-clergy) was regarded as acceptable for Christians. It still bore a taint of being selfish and less righteous than the conduct of the truly pious, but it was to a significant extent regarded as morally acceptable.
By the letter of the New Testament, self-defense—including defense against tyrannical governments and rulers—is and always has been morally forbidden. Only by compromising the scripture, by infusing some degree of rational thinking about the requirements of man’s life on earth, were Christians able to arrive at a view that self-defense can, for some people, in some contexts, be moral. Most Christian writers after Aquinas followed his lead on this matter and opted to interpret the scripture as permitting some degree of self-defense.
Christians of the Middle Ages, however, continued to regard disobedience to the state as a sin. This is vividly illustrated in Dante’s famous 14th-century epic, The Divine Comedy, in which we are led through hell, the “Inferno,” and its descending circles. In each circle we witness a different category of sinner being punished. At each deeper level, the sins get worse and the torments more horrific. At the deepest level, Satan himself is frozen in an ice lake with his torso rising above the surface; he has three faces, and in each of his mouths is a sinner. Hardly surprising, in the center is Judas, who betrayed Christ. Perhaps unexpectedly for contemporary Christians, in the other mouths are Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar, the pagan Roman dictator. Satan’s three mouths masticate these three greatest sinners of history, tearing them to pieces but never killing them.24
It is impossible to square the kind of violent rebellion that America’s revolutionary creators advocated and engaged in with the actual meaning of the scripture and accurate interpretations thereof.
The New Testament demands complete submission and obedience to the state; submission to the emperor; payment of taxes; and submission to evil—including violent aggression. Considerations of things such as “due process” and “no taxation without representation” are simply alien to the New Testament.
The Declaration of Independence is a moral argument for rebellion against an unjust state. The New Testament is a moral argument against rebellion in the face of tyranny. The respective purposes of the two texts are wholly at odds.
Recall Patrick Henry’s plea for war:
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have?
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”25
This classic expression of revolutionary defiance came from a man who was also famously—and paradoxically—a devout Christian. American Christians at the time had essentially abandoned the actual teachings of Christ and St. Paul on the matters of self-defense and obedience to the state.
Of course, many of the Founders were not Christians but rather were deists. Even these Founders, however, were influenced substantially by aspects of Christian thought. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, expressed admiration for Jesus as a moral philosopher for, among other reasons, Jesus’ stand against an absurd legal formalism represented by his Jewish foils in the Gospels.26 But none of the Founders embraced the New Testament’s position on self-defense or rebellion against government or authority—at least not in practice when it came to the American Revolution. The Revolution was driven not by faith and self-sacrifice but by reason and self-interest.
We can see this stark contrast not only with respect to self-defense, but also with respect to earthly values in general. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” we are told in the New Testament.27 This is why the disciples held all of their property in common.28 According to Jesus, the poor, not the rich, are “blessed.”29
Jesus drove home the same message with this: “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”30 The vows of poverty taken by Christian monks and nuns for centuries are no accident—they are based on the repeated assertions of Christ himself in the Gospels.
Just as the American Revolution entailed a repudiation of New Testament principles, so too the American reverence for the pursuit of wealth and happiness is fundamentally opposed to those principles.
The New Testament offers no advice on how to produce earthly wealth and achieve earthly happiness. On the contrary, it instructs followers not to worry about what they eat or wear, but rather to act like “the flowers of the field” that neither toil nor spin.31 And it contains no doctrine of individual rights. Rather, it commands followers to “turn the other cheek” when struck and to obey the state as God’s agent on earth.
The main documents of the American founding—the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution—were written to enable individuals to pursue the goal of earthly prosperity. They are the products not of faithful obedience to divine commandments, but of rational thinking about the requirements of life and happiness on earth. The American Revolution was not in any sense driven by or supported by the New Testament; it was, in effect, nothing less than a spectacular repudiation of that scripture.
Conservatives like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” With regard to the American Revolution, the answer is clear. If Jesus had been alive in the 18th century, he would have unequivocally opposed it—as, in principle, he emphatically did in the Gospels.