According to a group of conservative Catholic and Evangelical legal scholars, American civil law has undeniably divine roots.
Their argument, published in a recent edition of The Journal of Christian Legal Thought, provides an academic sheen to the Religious Right’s favorite talking points. “We affirm together that human law must aspire to the qualities specified in the traditional definition,” they wrote. “It should be an act of reason in conformity with God’s moral law, as written on the human heart and revealed in the Bible (Romans 2: 14-16).”
The group further added, “Law’s connection to reason requires that officials make legal and legislative judgments that are lawful from the perspective of God’s law,” and they concluded with their hopes that “God would be glorified” through their work.
As private individuals, these scholars are obviously entitled to that hope. Their other arguments, though, are of serious concern.
Let’s start with the assumption that this sectarian definition of the law is somehow “traditional.” It might very well be traditional for Catholics, who adhere to the church’s canon law. It might be traditional for those evangelicals who interpret the Bible literally.
But this “traditional” approach to civil law simply isn’t to be found in U.S. Constitution. The Constitution also doesn’t acknowledge any “requirement” that officials must govern from a Christian perspective. In fact, the First Amendment is clear: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….
The Founding Fathers were equally clear. In a personal letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
Jefferson didn’t write this out of anti-Christian sentiment. He wrote out of concern for religious liberty. In that same letter, he asserted, “Every religious society has the right to determine for itself the times for these exercise and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets, and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
And James Madison agreed. “We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt,” he wrote in a letter.
These days, we hear often that America is a “Christian nation,” and that our laws should reflect right-wing Christian beliefs. Usually, we hear it from the likes of David Barton, and not from a group of legal scholars based at respectable institutions like the University of Virginia and the Princeton University. But no amount of academic sheen can make this assertion anything other than wishful thinking with no basis in fact.
It’s obvious that regardless of their personal beliefs, our Founding Fathers never intended to create a legal system defined by religion. These Christian scholars may believe that officials should rule from a religious perspective, but they’d have to ignore the most fundamental underpinnings of American democracy to advance that belief on the national stage.
Today is Constitution Day. As we mark this day at Americans United, we’re grateful that our founding documents protect our right to the free exercise of belief, and we remain dedicated to defending that right from dogmatic attacks by aspiring theocrats.
Please join us.