Can America Restore Its Judeo-Christian Heritage?

By Prof. Paul Eidelberg

Do you know that the American Declaration of Independence is a theocratic as well as a political document? Do you know, as Lincoln knew, that the Declaration contains the philosophy of the American Constitution?

The signers of that revolutionary document justified their rebellion against the laws of Great Britain by appealing to a Higher Law, “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Judging, however, from the Senate confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayer and Elena Kagan, neither of these new Supreme Court justices understands or agrees that only God can endow the American people with the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” and make them “inalienable.” Mr. Obama and his appointees do not understand that without this Higher Law doctrine, the Declaration’s long list of grievances against the British Crown would be nothing more than arbitrary expressions of discontent having no moral justification.

In the absence of that Higher Law, however, the Court can rule that “everything is justiciable,” including those inalienable God-given rights. These smug, know-nothing individuals would strip the Constitution of any moral foundation and open the door to unlimited government or tyranny.

Americans needs reminding that the laws and institutions prescribed in their Constitution were designed to preclude the evils enumerated in the Declaration. The Framers of the Constitution effectively translated into political and institutional terms the theological manifesto of that document.[i] Yet, no one deemed the Government established under the Constitution a theocracy—quite apart from the First Amendment’s clause regarding religion. That Amendment, as initially understood, simply prohibited Congress from establishing a State religion. Revolted by the example of England, the American Founding Fathers refused to sacralize the modern nation-state, which they deemed powerful enough without investing it with religious authority. America’s monotheistic culture was opposed to a state religion.

That culture was rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage, in which not the State but the People are sovereign under God.[ii] If we think within the context of such a culture and maintain intellectual detachment from our present culture of Triumphant Secularism, it will be obvious that the First Amendment does not prevent Congress from passing laws supportive of the ethical monotheism or universal moral principles of the Declaration.

The ethical monotheism of early America was of paramount significance. Many early American statesmen and educators were schooled in Hebraic civilization. The second President of the United States, John Adams, a Harvard graduate and signer of the Declaration, had this to say of the Jewish people:

The Jews have done more to civilize men than any other nation…. They are the most glorious Nation that ever inhabited the earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a bauble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily than any other Nation, ancient or modern.[iii]

The curriculum at Harvard, like those of other early American colleges and universities, was designed by learned and liberal men of “Old Testament” persuasion. Harvard president Increase Mather (1685-1701) was an ardent Hebraist. His writings contain numerous quotations from the Talmud as well as from the works of Sa’adia Gaon, Rashi, Maimonides and other classic Jewish commentators.

Yale University president Ezra Stiles readily discoursed on the Mishna and Talmud with visiting rabbinical authorities. Hebrew and the study of Hebraic laws and institutions were an integral part of Yale’s as well as of Harvard’s curriculum. Much the same may be said of King’s College (later Columbia University), William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown University. Hebrew learning was then deemed a basic element of liberal education.

This attitude was not merely academic. On May 31, 1775, almost on the eve of the American Revolution, Harvard president Samuel Langdon, addressing the Congress of Massachusetts Bay, declared: “Every nation … has a right to set up over itself any form of government which to it may appear most conducive to its common welfare. The civil polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model.” (Emphasis added.)

Although Jefferson was no admirer of the Hebrew Bible, he framed the Declaration with a view to galvanizing the Bible-reading public in support of the Revolution. When he became President he supported Baptist churches.

During the colonial and constitution-making period, the Americans, especially the Puritans, adapted various Hebraic laws for their own governance. The legislation of New Haven, for example, was based on the premise that “the judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses … being neither … ceremonial, nor ha[ving] any reference to Canaan, shall … generally bind all offenders, till they be branched out into particulars hereafter.”

Of course, the Jewish roots of the American Constitution should not obscure the fact that America is first and foremost a Christian nation (Barack Obama to the contrary notwithstanding). This was confirmed in a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court as late as 1892! In the case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, Justice Brewer wrote:

? If we examine the constitutions of the various states, we find in them a constant recognition of religious obligations. Every Constitution of every one of the … states contains language which, either directly or by clear implication, recognizes a profound reverence for religion, and an assumption that its influence in all human affairs is essential to the wellbeing of the community.

? Even the Constitution of the United States, which is supposed to have little touch upon the private life of the individual, contains in the First Amendment a declaration common to the constitutions of all the states, as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”… [and yet] also provides in Article I, Section 7, a provision common to many constitutions, that the executive shall have ten days (Sundays excepted) within which to determine whether he will approve or veto a bill. There is no dissonance in these declarations. … They affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation…. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons. They are organic utterances. They speak the voice of the entire people.

? In People v. Ruggles (1811), Chancellor Kent, the great commentator on American law, speaking as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, said [in a case involving blasphemous publications]: “The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity as the rule of their faith and practice, and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order. . . . The free, equal, and undisturbed enjoyment of religious opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured; but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community is an abuse of that right.

? Nor are we bound by any expressions in the Constitution … either not to punish at all, or to punish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the Grand Lama, and for this plain reason, that the case [before us] assumes that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those impostors.

Chancellor Kent’s denigration of Muhammad and the Grand Lama is of course shocking. But we were speaking of the Judeo-Christian heritage underlying the Declaration and the Constitution.

This heritage of “natural rights” or of “natural law” has been eviscerated by the academic doctrine of moral relativism and its political counterpart the Progressive Movement. Although the institutional structure of the Constitution remains largely intact, the Supreme Court’s amoral and government-expanding interpretation of various constitutional amendments has spawned unfettered freedom of expression and indiscriminate equality, which have vulgarized and secularized America and buried the meritocracy that was to coexist with democracy. America now has a leveling and meaningless or “evolutionary constitution.” The immutable “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” have been replaced by historical relativism. Evolution has produced a leviathan, a “nanny state,” dispensing “entitlements” which not only stifles entrepreneurship. Rewards without effort undermine the sense of shame.

This is the smug, know-nothing agenda of America’s first anti-American president. Can America overcome this degradation and restore its Judeo-Christian heritage?


[i] I do not ignore the influence of Locke and Montesquieu, whose mentality, however, is hardly conceivable apart from the Biblical tradition.

[ii] This paragraph (except for references to the Torah) is indebted to Professor Will Morrisey in an email to the author. I am especially grateful for his reference to the cultural aspect of the First Amendment.

[iii] Cited in Pathways to the Torah (Jerusalem: Aish HaTorah Publications, 1988), p. A6.2. See Paul Eidelberg, The Philosophy of the American Constitution: A Reinterpretation of the Intentions of the Founding Fathers (New York: Free Press, 1968; University Press of America, 1988, Appendix 2.

Source: Edited transcript of the Eidelberg Report, Israel National Radio, September 6, 2010.

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