Does the Rule of Law Require a Population of Literate Christians?
It is not uncommon for debates to flare up over whether or not the United States was born a ‘Christian nation.’ It should be clear that the majority of the founders were Christians and not only that, but Christians who understood history. The men and women who migrated from Europe fled ‘Christian’ nations and had no desire to create the same oppressive systems in the New World as the ones they fled from in the Old World. However one slices it, it is clear that the founders thought that religion was important and that a nation filled with Christians was a good idea.
The United States has come a long way since then. There still are many Christians around and much of the law of the land can be traced back to morality as Christianity perceives it. This is also due in large part to the fact that the English Common Law was saturated in the Christian worldview and was what the founders were used to. Today, there are many people who have abandoned Christianity and all religion as well as many Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.
Some might argue that we have lost a great deal by wandering away from our guiding principles. It might be argued that the desertion of the entrenched Christian moral system has resulted in numerous terrible effects. I sympathize with those that would argue that way and do not, in the main, disagree. However, I believe that our wandering away from our guiding principles and the Christian moral majority are not causes but rather symptoms which in turn have their own effects.
By analogy, if certain outcomes of moral depravity are the result of the ‘disease’ of moving away from sound moral underpinnings, it was only because the ‘immune system’ was wracked by another, more deadly disease, which let these other more obvious ‘diseases’ take hold.
Just what ‘disease’ has undermined the nation’s immune system?
Positive moral statements about what is good and right are not the only borrowed capital from the Christian religion. “You shall not steal” is an example of such a moral statement. But why should anyone obey this statement? Those who believe that the words of the Christian Scriptures are authoritative are trained to view such statements with respect and deference, and obedience. Except for the exertion of coercive force, the only thing that can force a person to obey words on a paper is the individual’s own conscience.
Over the last two hundred years, the ‘words on the paper’ of the Christian Scriptures have been attacked over and over again. In particular, ‘higher critics’ who have insisted that the Old Testament is a hodge-podge of different editors’ decisions and that the New Testament documents have ambiguous and uncertain origins have created a climate where many feel that obedience to the Scriptures is irrational.
After all, how can one be certain that the texts really did say ‘You shall not steal’? What about everything else we find contained in the texts? How do we know it isn’t corrupted through and through?
From an evidential perspective, I find the findings of these scholars to be nonsense and I am not by any means the only one. However, what is lost here is not merely the certainty in regards to God’s feelings about theft, but also a culture of people accustomed to living their lives based on principles that they know by reading them from on a page.
To put it bluntly, what has been undermined is the respect for the rule of law itself. As the portion of the nation’s populace who is trained to submit to and obey what is written on the pages of the Scriptures has decreased, so too has the pool of individuals who would be willing to take the US Constitution as it has been written and willingly submit to it. It is not merely that they stubbornly won’t. They no longer lack the intellectual training to do so, even if they wanted to. Moreover, the notion of submitting to words written down long ago strikes many today as absurd.
It is often argued by skeptics that it is a great weakness of the Christian religion that so many Christians throughout history have disagreed on various interpretations of passages within the Scriptures. Nonetheless, throughout the history of western civilization, people were directed to the learn grammar and vocabulary precisely so that they could correctly interpret the Scriptures. After the Reformation where Luther and Calvin, building on the works of martyrs like John Wycliffe, put the Scriptures in the languages of the common man, this emphasis diffused out among the masses. The US Constitution was written during a time of spreading literacy where that literacy was promoted as being critically important to being able to reasonably understand the Scriptures.
That day is gone, and with it is the clear rationale for why one should learn how to read, and with that, the loss of a willingness to submit to a written code – not just a religious one, but also a legal one.
No better illustration of how far we’ve come can be given than looking at two different ways in which differences of opinion have been handled in American history.
Consider the first example: Prohibition. In the early parts of the 1900s, the Christian Scriptures had still not come under the vicious attack that would come. The Scopes-Monkey trial still had not happened. A huge number of misguided moralists decided that alcohol needed to be banned. A Constitutional amendment was pursued and it was obtained. And all hell broke loose.
What did Americans do? Realizing the error of their ways, they repealed the amendment with another amendment. That’s the way people behave when they think what is written down really matters.
Consider the second example: Abortion. Well past the snide attacks of liberal scholars in regards to the Scriptures and with the Christian world view clearly on the wane, many activists decided that it was time to get rid of all of the laws restricting abortion. What did Americans do? Why, they passed a Constitutional amendment of course.
No. No, wait a minute. Actually, they didn’t pass an amendment. Come to think of it, there wasn’t a scrap of legislation passed at all. What happened is that activists side-stepped the persuasion approach and went right through the court system. It takes a super-majority to pass an amendment and that requires a lot of persuasion. It only takes enthusiastic activists with a lot of money who can afford to push a court case up to the Supreme Court to take advantage of the court system.
The result, of course, was the Roe vs. Wade decision, where instead of a super-majority of American citizens were persuaded, only a handful of nine men in black robes were. These nine men came to age in a time when respect for the Scriptures had been practically dismantled. Perhaps predictably, they found a ‘right to privacy’ in the Constitution where such language cannot be found. Though I might be persuaded to believe that the Constitution nonetheless speaks to privacy, certainly the next step in the decision – where the life of the unborn is merely a component of a woman’s ‘right to privacy’ is certainly utterly absent.
In our modern climate, what something actually says doesn’t mean as much anymore. Meaning does not reside in the text or the author’s intent behind the text. If there is meaning at all, it resides in the reader, and the reader is often allowed to derive whatever meaning he likes. This is attitude is not constrained to Biblical interpretation, but interpretation of just about any texts. We do not live in a society where an individual is trained to say, “This is what is written, thus, this is what I will do.”
Instead, the individual says, “How lucky I am that what is written conforms to what makes me happy.”
If it does no so conform, the goal is to put people on the bench who are happy about the same things, what-is-written-be-damned.
In the case of abortion, being able to fight it out at the local level where either side could make their case and then let the voters decide, this venue is no longer of much value.
But the point is that this attitude is at work across the board on all sorts of topics. No longer does it matter what the words on the page say. What matters is what you can convince judges to think it says. The disenfranchisement is extended when one considers how difficult it is to overturn such judicial decrees. Our only recourse now is to try to elect a President who will appoint judges who may then overturn the previous Supreme Court decisions. That, of course, requires current judges to resign or die while your President is in office.
Is it any coincidence that judges who are most likely going to overturn something like Roe vs. Wade are conservative judges who insist that they will abide by the words on the paper? Is it a coincidence that these men and women also happen to more often than not be Christians? If we could find judges who would abide by the words on the paper who were not Christian, I would have less of an interest in the issue. My point, however, is that we live in a culture where such individuals are unlikely to arise. They are most likely going to arise out of a community that has trained itself to obey ‘words on a page.’
When one views the situation in our country from this angle, different perspectives on how to go about resolving the problems emerge. For example, trying to pass anti-abortion legislation and pro-heterosexual marriage legislation is attempting important work, but if no one – not even the judges who have sworn oaths to do so – sees fit to abide by that legislation, it is all for naught. Any amendments passed at the state level can be happily overturned at the Federal level.
To expand on my own long list of suggestions on how to remedy the situation would take another 1,500 words. However, I can sum it up by arguing that if I am correct about the connection between respect for the Scriptures and a respect for any written word or command, making more Christians is the best way to effect the long term solutions we are looking for.
Very possibly, some liberals and atheists will read this and be horribly offended by that suggestion. I am not advocating government enforced Christian education. On this, I am agreed with the founders that replacing one set of oppressive Christian regimes with another is not a good idea. Having a large population of “People of the Word” is a good thing in a nation that exists for and by the rule of law. If atheists and liberals can produce the same effect in some other way, more power to them (but good luck!).
Perhaps one way it could be brought about is by realizing that if you live by the judicial system you die by the judicial system. If a slew of conservative judges come to reside in the Supreme Court you will find now the shoe is on the other foot. At that time, you’ll come to see the value of allowing such matters to be sorted out by the democratic process. That is, unless you see no hope of persuading majorities to adopt your position and exploiting the judicial system is your only shot.
Anthony Horvath is the chief apologist at Christian Apologetics Ministries and is the author of Fidelis of the Birth Pangs series.