Was America Judeo-Christian?

June 19th, 2004

I am occasioned to write this essay by a number of recent references I have read to the “Judeo-Christian heritage” of the American republic. I was always bothered by that phrase and so I did a little reading and contemplation on the matter and came to a surprising conclusion: the heritage of the American republic is anything BUT Judeo-Christian. None of its underlying concepts are of Judeo-Christian provenance.

Here are the arguments in favor of this unexpected conclusion:

First, there is the matter of the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Contrary to some of the modern mythology, the Founding Fathers were not particularly religious. Indeed, I would guess that they were less religiously inclined than most modern politicians. The American republic was more than anything else a child of the Enlightenment, which was more than just a philosophy: it was an entire way of thinking. If you want to get a feeling for it, read Voltaire or Rousseau; these two were the leading lights of the Enlightenment. It was an exciting period, an intellectual revolution that led to the political revolutions of the late 1700s. It was most definitely anti-monarchial; because the Church was an ardent supporter of the Powers That Were, the Enlightenment was also vehemently anti-clerical. The Founding Fathers were mostly (not entirely) educated in the Enlightenment tradition; Thomas Jefferson was certainly the strongest member of this school. These guys were privately agnostic but publicly made all proper obeisance to religion. The great majority of the common people were still fervent Christians; there was no sense in antagonizing the public when there were more important matters at stake. There were, it is true, strong Christians among the Founding Fathers; there were even some clerics in the mix. But such people were a minority.

Second, we can look to the writings and actions of the Founding Fathers; they made it quite clear that they did not want any religious component in their new republic. The First Amendment is absolute and sweeping: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There is a slight difference of meaning between our modern use of the term “respecting” and their use of that term. As the Founding Fathers used that word, it meant both “advancing” and “with respect to”. It is this latter meaning that is so sweeping. They say flat out that Congress shall make no law about, related to, pertaining to, or otherwise concerning any religion. No religion in our government, no way, no how.

In those days there were a number of laws on the books requiring citizens to pay dues to the local religious establishment. The First Amendment was explicitly directed at such laws, and the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that there would be no loopholes. They covered everything with a sweeping wording. Some of those laws survived for a period after the ratification of the Constitution, but they were eventually sorted out. Moreover, while there were several attempts to surreptitiously insert clauses into the Constitution that would have permitted religious components at the state level, all such attempts were voted down. For example, one clause of the Constitution specifies that Congress shall have the power to specify how its members are to be elected. This clause worried many defenders of states’ rights, as it represented a major intrusion into the internal workings of the individual states. Even so, it carried because a number of states had electoral laws that restricted the candidacy to Christians. Such laws were so inimical to the intentions of the Founding Fathers that even the states’ rights advocates conceded the point.

Advocates of the “Judeo-Christian heritage” claim point to the four religious references in the Declaration of Independence: “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; “Creator”; “divine Providence”. Note, however, that none of these references is specifically Christian; they work just as well when applied to Allah, Shiva, or Zeus. In fact, there’s a tiny slap in the Christian face buried in those references: the lack of capitalization of the word ’divine’. Common practice at the time was to capitalize all references to the Christian God, including adjectival references: “Our Lord”, “His Mercy”, “Virgin Mary”, “Sacred Blood”, and so forth. Even today the phrase is commonly capitalized – search on Google for the phrase and you’ll see. Yet the Founding Fathers violate convention by using lowercase for the adjective (all nouns in the Declaration of Independence are capitalized, as was the custom of the times). Clearly, they intended to disassociate themselves from any explicit Christian references.

Note further that these references appear only in the Declaration of Independence, not in the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence was a call to arms, intended to be a stirring document inspiring citizens to bold and dangerous action. It needed all the inspirational juice that Thomas Jefferson could write into it. Moreover, the religious references were necessary to blunt the accusations of atheism that would surely be leveled against them as rebels. Remember that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England lent all their spiritual authority to support the monarchy in Europe. The preachers declared that opposition to the monarchy was sinful. To counter this political problem, the Founding Fathers felt a need to make some token, but noncommittal, references to theism. And that’s exactly what they did.

My third argument is that the Judeo-Christian heritage doesn’t include anything that we consider fundamental to our republic. Take the idea of democracy. That’s a Greek invention, not a Jewish or Christian one. There is absolutely no support for democracy to be found in the Bible. The idea of a republic is a Roman one, and a Latin term (“res publica” – public affairs). The Roman Republic was operating 400 years before Christ was born. There was not a single instance of a Jewish or Christian republic to inspire the Founding Fathers.

Or how about the idea of citizenship, with its accompanying notion that citizenship confers rights? Sorry, that’s not a Jewish or Christian idea, and never arose during the two millennia of Judeo-Christian theology preceding the Founding Fathers. Citizenship was a Greek concept, expanded and developed by the Romans.

The rule of law? Nope, that’s a specifically Greco-Roman concept, although it took centuries for the idea to build up strength against the usurpations of tyrants and mobs. But over and over in Greco-Roman writings, we read authors calling for respect for the laws. The Greeks showed their respect for the law by honoring Draco as “Draco the Lawgiver”. Meanwhile, the Judeo-Christian concept of law was explicitly spiritual and explicitly apolitical. When Christ was presented with an apparent conflict between secular and religious law, he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.

What about the importance of the individual, or the sanctity of life? In this case, it is true that the concept seems implicit in Judeo-Christian writings, but it certainly isn’t unique to the Judeo-Christian heritage. Read Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero – respect for the individual permeates these writings.

The truth of the matter is that our Republic is the product of the Western heritage, not the Judeo-Christian heritage. The Western heritage constitutes a blending of Greco-Roman concepts and Judeo-Christian concepts. Early Christianity was a spiritual movement, not a political one. After a few centuries, the two traditions began to merge, During the Scholastic period of Christian thought, great minds like Aquinas struggled to bring the Greco-Roman tradition into harmony with the Christian tradition; in the process, Christianity underwent some alterations. But the Renaissance brought back the Greco-Roman tradition in force, and the whole thrust of the Reformation-Enlightenment period was the ostracization of the Church from the political arena, a concept first bound into law by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.