Was the Constitution's Political Vision Formed by the Bible?

a570af34_optIn the July 3 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, American University historian Daniel Dreisbach said the Constitution’s political vision was in part formed by the Bible. Dreisbach wrote that “The Constitution gives evidence of a political vision informed, in part, by the Bible, and it includes features that were familiar to a Bible-reading people.” He added that “the founders’ devotion to the separation of powers and checks and balances reflected a biblical understanding of original sin and a reluctance to vest unchecked government power in the hands of fallen human beings.”
If the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had Bible doctrine in mind when they framed the Constitution, they had a strange way of showing it.  I am in the middle of a summer long project to read James Madison’s daily notes on the debates during the Convention and I am not finding evidence of the Bible’s influence. The Convention got underway in earnest in late May of 1787 and proceeded six days a week until mid-September. Thus far, the delegates rejected a direct call to prayer made by Benjamin Franklin and rarely referred to religion in their remarks.
When Ben Franklin implored the delegates to seek the assistance of heaven, the delegates adjourned without voting on Franklin’s motion. Franklin later invoked the Scripture in a debate over qualifications for the presidency. In his Inquirer article, Dreisbach said “the delegates occasionally invoked the Bible in surprising and interesting ways.” Based on my reading, I think it would be more accurate to say the delegates rarely invoked the Bible.
Franklin’s reference to the Bible was supplemented by another persuasive appeal. Franklin’s comments were in response to a motion by Charles Pinkney to require “that the President of the U. S. the Judges, and members of the Legislature should be required to swear that they were respectively possessed of a cleared unincumbered Estate to the amount of —– in the case of the President &c &c.” Pinkney wanted to limit these offices to land owners with an undetermined level of wealth. First, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth spoke against the motion followed by Franklin.

Mr. ELSEWORTH [Oliver Ellsworth]. The different circumstances of different parts of the U. S. and the probable difference between the present and future circumstances of the whole, render it improper to have either uniform or fixed qualifications. Make them so high as to be useful in the S. States, and they will be inapplicable to the E. States. Suit them to the latter, and they will serve no purpose in the former. In like manner what may be accomodated to the existing State of things among us, may be very inconvenient in some future state of them. He thought for these reasons that it was better to leave this matter to the Legislative discretion than to attempt a provision for it in the Constitution.
Doctr. FRANKLIN expressed his dislike of every thing that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. If honesty was often the companion of wealth, and if poverty was exposed to peculiar temptation, it was not less true that the possession of property increased the desire of more property. Some of the greatest rogues he was ever acquainted with, were the richest rogues. We should remember the character which the Scripture requires in Rulers, that they should be men hating covetousness. This Constitution will be much read and attended to in Europe, and if it should betray a great partiality to the rich, will not only hurt us in the esteem of the most liberal and enlightened men there, but discourage the common people from removing into this Country.

Franklin’s use of Scripture was one aspect of his argument but he wanted to discourage a perception of partiality to the rich for other reasons. Specifically, Franklin thought Pinkney’s proposal would lower the reputation of the new nation among the enlightened as well as discourage immigration of common folk.
As I read the debates, religious references were used sparingly and as supplements to historical and political arguments. The delegates frequently refer to Greece and Rome, European governments, and Britain. Sometimes they explicitly refer to Montesquieu, whereas they frequently invoke his The Spirit of Laws without mentioning a direct source.
Having addressed Dreisbach’s overreach, I want to add that he is surely correct that the Christianity of the founders was one part of the mix of influences. For instance, Dreisbach is on more solid ground when he writes:

The founding generation drew on and synthesized diverse intellectual traditions in forming their political thought. Among them were British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and classical and civic republicanism.
To this list of intellectual influences, one must add the Bible…

On the whole, however, I think Dreisbach skews his evidence to create an incomplete and ultimately inaccurate narrative. He says the Bible was the most frequently cited source over Locke and Montesquieu but doesn’t mention that a large number of these citations were in sermons from pastors and not by the founders. He doesn’t balance his presentation by noting that the federalists did not mention the Bible in their defense of the Constitution (the anti-federalists did reference the Bible, but they didn’t prevail). Dreisbach notes that the 1774 Continental Congress opened with prayer and Bible reading but failed to disclose that Ben Franklin’s  call for the Constitutional Convention to do the same thing was rejected by a sizable majority of delegates. Then, as explained above, Dreisbach invoked Franklin’s reference to Scripture in isolation without including the context of his other remarks and the rarity of their occurrence. Finally, during the Constitutional Convention, when separation of powers was brought up, the source of influence was more often Montesquieu than theology.
Some may object to my critique of a distinguished American historian. However, I say read the debates of the Constitutional Convention before you dismiss my response.  On the whole, I can’t find sufficient evidence that the Constitution’s political vision had much to do with the Bible. I realize that religion was very important at various points in the American experience and many of the founders expressed thanks to God. Some of the founders wanted the new republic to privilege religion and particularly Christianity. To me, the real miracle is that the consensus of the framers was to eliminate religious tests and to include language in the First Amendment enshrining freedom of conscience for all, even those who hold no religion.

Friendly Atheist Unfriendly to Bernie Sanders' Religious Test

What do Illinois Family Institute’s Laurie Higgins, National Review’s David French, fellow Patheos blogger Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) and I have in common?
We all believe Bernie Sanders was out of line to say he will vote against Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director nominee Russ Vought because of Vought’s religious beliefs.
Mehta has gone out on a limb with his readers to take this position, but I believe it is the right one. Article Six of the Constitution states in part:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

While Sanders may be disgusted by Vought’s religious beliefs, Sanders may not use those beliefs as a test for Vought’s service as an officer of the federal government. As Mehta said in his column (I urge you to read it, it may challenge your views about atheists), Sanders could have taken a different and appropriate approach:

The question Sanders should’ve asked is whether Vought’s beliefs about non-Christian people would ever influence his treatment of them under the law. Would he treat Muslims (or LGBT people, for that matter) the same way he treats Christians?

I want to know that as well. One of my concerns about dominionist Christians (not saying Vought is, I don’t know) getting into power is that they might favor Christians over others, using a Christian religious test. Perhaps Sanders inappropriate actions can serve as a caution to Christian politicians to consider the Golden Rule in choosing public servants – If you don’t like it when a religious test is used on your in-group, then don’t use one on members of out-groups.

No Religious Test

As far as I can tell, the “no religious test” clause was first suggested by Charles Pinckney, delegate from South Carolina to the Constitutional Convention. On May 29, 1787, Pinckney laid his plan before the Convention where it was sent to committee. Then much later on August 20, Pinckney was able to bring it to the floor. The religious test portion said:

No religious test or qualification shall ever be annexed to any oath of office, under the authority of the United States.

In his defense of the plan, Pinckney wrote:

The next Article l provides for the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus — the Trial by Jury in all cases, Criminal as well as Civil — the Freedom of the Press, and the prevention of Religious Tests, as qualifications to Offices of Trust or Emolument: The three first essential in Free Governments; the last, a provision the world will expect from you, in the establishment of a System founded on Republican Principles, and in an age so liberal and enlightened as the present. (p. 122)

Note that Pinckney believed that a “liberal and enlightened” age required freedom from religious test.
Some might question whether or not we live in an enlightened age. However, it is refreshing when agreement can be found across ideological lines and that agreement is based on the foundational principles of the Republic.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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Does Article II of the Constitution Come from Deuteronomy 17:15?

Self-styled historian David Barton says it does. In a DVD (also on YouTube) called Constitutional Christian, Barton repeats a familiar claim that the Constitution is full of Bible verses (hat tip RWW). Watch:
Barton specifically mentions Deuteronomy 17:15 which reads (NASV):

you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman.

The relevant clause of Article II of the Constitution reads:

No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.

First, it is important to see critical differences between Deuteronomy and this clause of Article II. The major difference is that God chose the king of Israel while the Constitution sets eligibility requirements for an elected official who is not a king. Another important difference is that Article II contains an exception to the citizenship requirement. Foreign born people who were citizens at the time the Constitution was adopted were eligible. Thus, a foreigner could be eligible, at least until that generation died off.
Barton’s essential claim is that the framers included the citizenship requirement because it is in the Bible. However, Barton offers no evidence that the framers of the Constitution consulted the Bible or even referred to the Bible in establishing this clause. Happily, we have a reasonably detailed record of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention. The delegates discussed citizenship requirements in depth but didn’t appeal to the Bible. Barton’s claim fails on two counts: Article II is not Deuteronomy 17:15 and the framers didn’t refer to the Bible when crafting eligibility requirements for federal office.

What did the delegates to the Constitutional Convention talk about?

In July and August of 1787*, the delegates debated the citizenship requirements for legislators and president. Some of the framers (e.g., Madison, Franklin) wanted to allow foreigners to hold office, while others (e.g. Morris, Pinckney) wanted tighter restrictions. Several votes were taken on the number of years foreign born people must live in the U.S. before being eligible to serve in the House, Senate and as president. The framers were not unified and certainly did not rally around a set of biblical principles.
An excerpt will illustrate the debate:

Article 5, Sect. 3, was then taken up.
Mr. Gouverneur Morris moved to insert fourteen instead of four years citizenship, as a qualification for Senators; urging the danger of admitting strangers into our public councils.
Mr. Pinckney seconded him.
Mr. Ellsworth was opposed to the motion, as discouraging meritorious aliens from emigrating to this country.
Mr. Pinckney. As the Senate is to have the power of making treaties and managing our foreign affairs, there is peculiar danger and impropriety in opening its door to those who have foreign attachments. He quoted the jealousy of the Athenians on this subject, who made it death for any stranger to intrude his voice into their legislative proceedings.
Col. Mason highly approved of the policy of the motion. Were it not that many, not natives of this country, had acquired great credit during the Revolution, he should be for restraining the eligibility into the Senate, to natives.
Mr. Madison was not averse to some restrictions on this subject, but could never agree to the proposed amendment. He thought any restriction, however, in the Constitution unnecessary and improper ; —unnecessary, because the National Legislature is to have the right of regulating naturalization, and can by virtue thereof fix different periods of residence, as conditions of enjoying different privileges of citizenship ;—improper, because it will give a tincture of illiberality to the Constitution ; because it will put out of the power of the national Legislature, even by special acts of naturalization, to confer the full rank of citizens on meritorious strangers ; and because it will discourage the most desirable class of people from emigrating to the United States. Should the proposed Constitution have the intended effect of giving stability and reputation to our Governments, great numbers of respectable Europeans, men who loved liberty, and wished to partake its blessings, will be ready to transfer their fortunes hither. All such would feel the mortification of being marked with suspicious incapacitations, though they should not covet the public honors. He was not apprehensive that any dangerous number of strangers would be appointed by the State Legislatures, if they were left at liberty to do so ; nor that foreign powers would make use of strangers, as instruments for their purposes. Their bribes would be expended on men whose circumstances would rather stifle than excite jealousy and watchfulness in the public.
Mr. Butler was decidedly opposed to the admission of foreigners without a long residence in the country. They bring with them, not only attachments to other countries, but ideas of government so distinct from ours, that in every point of view they are dangerous. He acknowledged that if he himself had been called into public life within a short time after his coming to America, his foreign habits, opinions, and attachments, would have rendered him an improper agent in public affairs. He mentioned the great strictness observed in Great Britain on this subject.
Doctor Franklin was not against a reasonable time, but should be very sorry to see any thing like illiberality inserted in the Constitution. The people in Europe are friendly to this country. Even in the country with which we have been lately at war, we have now, and had during the war, a great many friends, not only among the people at large, but in both Houses of Parliament. In every other country in Europe, all the people are our friends. We found in the course of the Revolution, that many strangers served us faithfully, and that many natives took part against their country. When foreigners after looking about for some other country in which they can obtain more happiness, give a preference to ours, it is a proof of attachment which ought to excite our confidence and affection.

Concerning the office of Senator, the delegates argued over how long a foreign born citizen had to be a citizen in order to be eligible.  Rather than the Bible, Morris appealed to fear and national loyalty while his colleague Pinckney appealed to Greek political law. Only citizens could vote in Athens and Pinckney cited their law as support. South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler also cited the example of Great Britain as support for lengthy citizenship requirements.  Later in the debate, Morris made a strong appeal to nationalism, saying

As to those philosophical gentlemen, those citizens of the world, as they called themselves, he owned, he did not wish to see any of them in our public councils. He would not trust them. The men who can shake off their attachments to their own country, can never love any other. These attachments are the wholesome prejudices which uphold all governments. (p. 489)

Mason and Ellsworth countered that many good people had served the nation during the Revolution and should be allowed to continue to serve. Madison and Franklin viewed citizenship requirements for foreign born citizens as illiberal and too restrictive. Not one delegate cited Israel, Deuteronomy, or the Bible as a source or support for their position. Eventually, Morris’ argument won out and the delegates settled on a nine year citizenship requirement to be eligible to be a Senator.
The next day, the delegates again took up the debate, this time over citizenship requirements for the House of Representatives. Again, the debate centered on merits of being open and liberal versus the perception of danger from foreign meddling. Eventually, as with the requirements for president, a compromise was suggested which allowed citizens at the time the Constitution was adopted to serve without having to meet the lengthy citizenship qualification.
The requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen” or a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution was passed on September 7 without debate as recorded by James Madison. The delegates also decided that the chief executive must have been a citizen for at least 14 years. Again, Madison recorded no debate over the matter. For sure, there was no recorded reference to the Bible, Deuteronomy, or Israel.
For Barton’s argument to have any weight, he would need to produce evidence. I am open to any primary source evidence he might bring. However, what I have seen so far provides evidence against his claim. The Constitution doesn’t quote the Bible verbatim no matter how much he wishes it did.
*July 26 (page 434), August 8 (p. 472), August 9 (p. 482), August 10 (p. 497), and August 13 (p. 506)