Friday, October 30, 2009

Early America: Protestantism & the West, Pt. 4

If we call the American statesmen of the late eighteenth century the Founding Fathers of the United States, then the Pilgrims and Puritans were the grandfathers and Calvin the great-grandfather..."

Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

October 31st is not just Halloween, it is the birthday of Protestantism. Luther's theological challenge changed the West. And this multi-part series summarizes some of those changes.


What many detractors of Christianity do not realize is that Protestants do not believe the Bible micromanages life. Even though the conservative Christians today wish to go "back to the Bible" they generally do not mean they wish to quote chapter and verse for any and all social or governmental decisions.

The same was true for early Americans. Yes, many more laws were directly tied to Biblical precepts (such as the Sabbath/Sunday laws), yet many other local laws were not. The doctrine of general revelation (here) gave rise to natural law and the freedom to apply Biblical principles to unique local circumstances.

In other words, any given law in the early American period was assumed (or argued) to be compatible with God's written Word.

Law & Christianity

Historically, the modern world--Modernity--began with the Reformation. Now more historians are publicly acknowledging what their older predecessors already knew: the substantive impact of Reformed thought in history.

One book in particular, Law & Revolution II, traces the theological outlooks that shaped both German and English legal thought from the Reformation through the 1600s. Published through Harvard University Press (Belknap), Professor Berman's well-documented book is a ringing challenge to many preconceived assumptions.

Ironically, from a non-Christian viewpoint anyway, the historical underpinnings of many modern legal assumptions--separation of church and state, freedom of religion and conscience--are found in Puritan Massachusetts. In fact, the jurisdictional distinction between church and state was already articulated in the 1600s: church censure (discipline) was not allowed to "degrade or depose" any government official (Puritan Political Ideas, Edmund Morgan).

The cultural assumptions at the time included the importance of Christianity as the social basis of the government. A Republic required knowledge, morality and religion as a cohesive tripartite foundation for good government. This is what the 1787 Congress stated (and the 1789 Congress re-adopted) two-hundred years ago when it adopted the Northwest Ordinance regulating the new American territory:

Art. 3. Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged [in the States to be formed from this Territory].

Although well-known as the chief architect of the Virginia "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" Jefferson also sponsored (along with Madison) a "Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers" and a "Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving."

In fact, Christianity was considered part and parcel of the common law of the land. US Supreme Court Justice Story argued as much and this fact was asserted several times by several courts over the history of the 1800s ("When Christianity was Part of the Common Law," Law & History Review, 16:27 (1998)).


"[T]he prevailing spirit of Americans before and after the War of Independence was essentially Calvinistic in both its brighter and uglier aspects"

Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Western Dilemma: Calvin or Rousseau?” Modern Age, no. 1 (1971)

Hence the constitutional democracy that we all know today has its roots in that Reformed Protestant revival of the biblical idea of covenant which was not only important in the fight against tyrants and hierarchies but could be made operational in political systems that would protect liberties.”

Daniel Elazar, World History Curriculum, Article 2

Hamilton, a legal historian, an expert on constitutional and copyright law and a former assistant to Supreme court judges, discovered that:

"This [American] marriage of distrust in individuals but hope in properly structured institutions is no mere historical accident but has its roots in the Reformation theology of John Calvin…Others have made the more general case that Calvinist precepts permeated the culture at the time of the framing. Many of the Framers brought to the convention a background in Calvinist theology, with Presbyterians predominating among the Calvinists"

“The Calvinist Paradox of Distrust and Hope at the Constitutional Convention,” Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, 2001

Modern detractors to Christianity are standing upon a legal foundation wrought in the refinery of the Reformation. The question is: if the foundation shifts from Protestant roots to atheistic assertions what will become of our liberties?

Part 1, October Revolution
Part 2, Education
Part 3, Birth of America
Part 4, Early America
Part 5, Political Roots
Part 6, October 31st

For more info: Separation of Church & State, Hamburger; Religion & the American Constitutional Experiment, Witte; The Covenant Connection, ed. Elazar.

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