The American Experiment: Stepping Stones
Before launching into any critique and/or praise about any moment in American history, I’d like to set all things in their proper order by saying that I am not here, and we are not here, to deify America and our founding fathers. There is plenty enough evidence to reveal that our founders were just as flawed at managing culture and the spiritual life as we are today given all of our advancements. So lets simplify this entire conversation by first recognizing all of our humanness and our bend toward incongruent tendencies, where there is simply a gap between what we aim at versus how we actually live and breathe. Let’s call ourselves back to remembering that it is our job as God’s children to be praying and acting as light in our culture, and to make it the ultimate purpose of our lives to live a life that falls more in tune with the way of Jesus with each passing day.
What has become known as the American experiment is interesting to say the least. Amongst all of the critique we could possibly throw at the founding fathers, what I have no problem handing directly to their legacy is their profound and mature grip on Biblical worldview. This does not mean that they were flawless, but what it does mean is that based on the writings we have from them on the whole, their approach to Christianity (was amongst other things), a completely holistic, all-encompassing lens with which to view the world. There was no division for them about what was sacred versus secular. All of their life was conducted under a general rule of order as they understood it in the Bible given their culture, their heritage, and their moment in history.
What’s unmistakable is their understanding that there was a need for a civil magistrate whose form is not completely clear other than what is outlined in the Bible, but the most important thing about “him” was that he must see himself in this relationship to God- as His agent.
In Romans 13 where Paul discusses God’s design for authorities it says that “He is the agent of God, his servant.”
Isaiah 33:22 says, “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king. It is He who will save us.”
Because they took the Bible seriously, they believed that as the scripture above reads, that in an effort to mirror on earth the authority in heaven. This rendered the need for a lawgiver, a judge, and a king.
Those 3 elements (above) they believed were the essential part of the civil magistrate, which is why we have the 3 branches of government: Judicial, Legislative, and Executive.
I’m going to assess the principles they were trying to achieve, but separating them from their character.
In America today, all you have to do is sit through an introductory course in philosophy or History to understand that it is common conversation and it is en vogue to hate America in liberal academia. It’s a love to love culture but yet insists on its frequent flare ups of love to hate mixed in there as well. So what can we simmer down from all of that into something thats actually useful and helpful?
Let’s pose the question as this: In the American Experiment, for all of its flaws, what is, then, the right form that this agency should take?
To other nations who are much more oppressed than we, and for other groups of people on the planet who seek out America longingly, we represent THE standard of freedom. We are a “city on a hill,” and we reveal in the fabric of our nation how it is possible to stand on these principles. When this, just like the other spheres, gets blurred and we use our freedoms in offensive ways, some other nations have a distinct distaste for was we have come to stand for. In plenty of ways, I agree.
THEN & NOW
The precise goal of all of these different spheres I am writing about have to do with God’s original design and intent and how through scripture we’re able to sift out and make sense of how we as followers of Jesus can best bear His name in the actions of our lives. So here, the idea is to chat about the hopes and dreams, the foundations and the principles that WERE there in the beginning, and how we are now turning away from those, and what that costs us.
The first Surgeon General in the United States, Benjamin Rush, who was also a signer of The Declaration of Independence, and who also started the first anti-slavery society in America said this is 1798:
“In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be Republicans and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of our government. That is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the mets of the Bible.” – Benjamin Rush, quoted in “A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book.
Rush went on to say, “The only foundation for…a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” Let’s bear in mind that there is a large difference between freedom and liberty.
Obviously there is a plethora of reasons that one would not agree with that, but let’s work out the implications for process. If we remove God from our nation and the structures that define it, what does it actually mean for us?
Revelation 2:5 says, “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.”
When Jesus removes a lampstand, that person and/or that nation becomes very dark. This scripture is exhortative. Some people actually love the darkness, and that’s really what this is about.
In George Washington’s Farewell Address on September 17, 1796, he said this:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props (religion + morality) of the duties of men and citizens.”
“Statesman, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.…And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” George Washington, June 21, 1776
Religion and morality were the foundations that they were trying to secure. What do they mean by religion, though?
“…Christianity is the only true and perfect religion; and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obey its precepts they will be wise and happy.” Benjamin Rush
Charles Carroll who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence said this: “Without morals, a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are denying the christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”
What strikes me is how they all had the same understanding of these foundations.
Patrick Henry (1736-1799) in his letter to Archibald Blair in January of 1799 said this: “The great pillars of all government and of social life are virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor…and this alone, that render us invincible.”
It’s not our tanks, our planes, our armies, and our ships. These foundations are what make us invincible, but when those foundations are crippled, our strength fades out.
The author Alexis De Tocqueville who wrote “A Disinterested Party: Democracy in America,” said this:
“The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other. The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me upon my arrival in the U.S. In France, I had always seen spirits of religion and freedom almost always marching in opposite directions. In America, I found them intimately linked together and joined and reigned over the same land…Religion should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions. From the start, politics and religion have agreed and have not since ceased to do so.”
There is no question that the founding fathers tied the success of liberty to these pillars, morality and religion.
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Benjamin Franklin, The Letter to The Abbés Chalut and Arnaux, April 17, 1787.
Noah Webster said, “The moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws… All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.”
John Adams said, “We have no government armed in power capable of contending in human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams, Address to the Officers of the Massachusetts Militia in 1798.
John Adams is saying that they were concerned about this sphere which could become a great monster. They had seen in through history, and they had fled from it. They wanted to build not only an agency that was consistent with God’s design, but an agency that ensures as best they could that the monster would not become an oger. That’s why they created the separation of powers. If men were angels we would not need it.
Here’s the whole catch:
The constitution we have been given is inadequate to deal with a people who are not governed internally, and it is inadequate unless they see themselves before God as a moral agent who must be consistent with His law. It will not work. Plenty of you are like, yes, duh, it’s not working, even from the perspective of a non-believer. This is precisely why, because we have removed God and so now American culture has to carve out a new way to govern itself and its imploding because it does not suit the spectrum. There is no option other than to steal the social justice and liberty elements that find their origins in Christianity, but only doing so without the God attached to the principle. Our culture wants all of the benefits of Christianity, none of the history, but all of the benefits.
“To preserve the government we must also preserve the morals. Morality rests on religion; if you destroy the foundation, the superstructure must fall. When the public mind becomes vitiated and corrupt, laws are a nullity and constitutions are a waste of paper.” Daniel Webster, Oration of Hanover, N.H. July 4th, 1800
Hopefully we have revealed some of the deeper architecture of The American Experiment. It is messy, obscure, awful at times, and then also pure in its definitions & intentions- not in implementation. It is built upon a deep foundation that transcends the law itself. The foundation itself is not the Constitution, it’s deeper than the constitution.
Romans 13 is clear that the purpose of the civil magistrate under divine order is a) to punish evil b) and to condone good.
All of this to say that whoever is in the governing authority better know what the basis of calling good or evil is, or everything crumbles. If that basis is not transcendent of himself, he will be the SOLE determiner of what is right and what is wrong. He who bears the sword is also he who determines what is right and best.
I think a key point that many Christians even miss on this is that the rights of man do not come from the State or the civil magistrate at all. If they come from the state, the state can yank them back whenever it wants and can toy with versions that taint the purity of them. Also, if that is the case, that is such a low view of the human person and identity in general, and so fickle at that. That’s such a huge reason why I am beyond enamored with Christianity because it is bar none the highest view of the human person, blasting every other religion out of the water with the dignity and worth that God assigns to His created beings. Those rights are from the creator God. No agent and no king can remove them.
Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) wrote about the Law of Nature as written on the heart of man. He said, “The law of nature is that which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction…the moral law, called also the law of nature.”
If you’ve studied law at all in America, you’ve studied from William Blackstone (1723-1730). In his “Commentaries on the law,” he said this:
“As man depends absolutely upon His maker for everything, it is necessary that he should, in all points, conform to his makers will. This will of his maker is called the law of nature…This law of nature…dictated by God himself is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity contrary to it, and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority..from this original.”
This is how you learned as a lawyer in America during the 18th century, that the law of nature is dependent on God’s law. All of the lawmaking questions boiled down to, “Where do you find that law in the scripture?” That was the old-school frame of mind, and what a way to be human where the bar is set so darn high.
Evolution of Law in America
Okay, so for context, 1859 was the year that Darwin published the Origin of Species.
In 1869 Charles Elliot arrived as new president of Harvard. He immediately appointed Christopher Columbus Langdel, who did not have the qualifications for the position. However, he agreed with Elliot that Evolution was true, that it was to be the overriding principle, and that it should pervade every area of academia. This decision changed the law at Harvard, and eventually around the country.
Blackstone’s provisions for the definition of law were thrown out, and a new case study came in which is where Elliot said that “Law considered as a science, consists of certain principles or doctrines…each of these doctrines has arrived at its present state by slow degrees; in other words, it is a growth, extending in may cases through centuries. This growth is to be traced in the main through a series of cases.”
He means that we must approach law the same way that we approach evolution and biology. Quite obviously this changed the view of law in America all together. This all brought about Legal Positivism which is the claim that the State is the ultimate authority for creating, interpreting, and enforcing the law. All legal truth is based on the decision of the state. It’s interesting because that which is an ethical notion would now be determined by the state. Don’t miss how important that is in implication.
In other words, we (the State) will determine what the next evolutionary law system should be which simply meant that they began to apply the law of the survival of the fittest to jurisprudence.
Where formerly and all throughout our American history and church history the one who “bears the sword,” or the authority figure was understood to be accountable to God, this new status turned the tables over completely. The State is then the sword bearer, the source of truth, ethics, morality, AND is the implementor judicially. This is the blurring of spheres that i’ve been referencing all along. It’s very difficult to argue that removing God from the civil authorities doesn’t in fact go against God’s design for authority and human flourishing.
What is the larger story?
There’s always a bigger picture, right? It makes sense then why people hate America, or resent its history at best because it stems from a hatred of God’s law and how it has been implemented for the better or for the worse.
The legacy of the United States is taken for granted when it is not understood properly. Civilization is in great distress unless we retain our heritage where we recapture a mature Biblical worldview that weaves the objective truth of God’s word into the fabric of every operating sphere of life. We’ve done a poor job of this in the past at times, but God has never changed.
Men have forgotten God, and that is why all of this has happened. It’s so easy not to need God on the other hand, especially in America where our versions of need will always pale in comparison to the majority of other countries around the world. When we remove God, it loosens everything up. But what authority without God fails to do, on the other hand, is to actually satisfy humanity and actually architect real human flourishing. A godless society only seems distressful if you’re a follower of Jesus, but to the typical secular person in society this is the only thing that makes sense to them. But we have to remember the cycle of nations that is smothering the entire Bible and is evident in every phase of history all over the world. When God blesses us, we get satisfied, and we forget him. This is the story of God and mankind since the beginning of time, so we are not in new territory here. Regardless of our circumstances, we are called to remain in the position of humility, and righteousness before Him- no matter what. We are accountable to Him alone in the end.
Abraham Lincoln who was as you know, a pillar of a man, said this:
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown, but we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthen us…and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own…Intoxicated with unborn success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.” Abraham Lincoln, as quoted in “Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation & Prayer” April 30, 1863
I’ve recently heard many people remarking on how dreadful this period in our history feels, and how dark it seems. It feels helpful to me to recall that darkness does not overtake light, but light overtakes darkness.
If darkness spreads across the land if you will, somebody is hiding the light, or Jesus is moving his lamp stand from the land.
Father, we ask you to give us a heart and a passion for the culture that we live in. Help us to be the light that you’ve called us to be, and that we would not turn away when it’s difficult to engage. If you should call us to a place where we must stand alone for your name’s sake, help us to stand alone. I ask you to give us a proper view and love for your creation, your people, and that we would live every day as if its our last; as if we are in exile, trusting in the God who has never left us. No matter what our country does, we know we have refuge in you and that our liberty is what you have given to us in our first breath.