The Bible and the Constitution

Christians are often accused of wanting to replace the Constitution with the Bible. There could be someone out there who might have said this. If you hunt long enough, you can always find a sound-bite from a no-name character to make your already concluded case. The charge sets up a straw man. I don’t know anyone who says the Bible should supplant the Constitution.

Even those who believed in instituting a “theocracy” in New England had written constitutions for their civil government. They understood that the Bible is not a procedural document on civil government. While it sets forth duties and limits for the various governmental domains (family, church, and State), it does not establish guidelines for the day-to-day governance of those governments except in the broadest outline. This is evident in Jethro’s advice to Moses. He offered practical government advice while still understanding that those who ruled should do so from a fixed moral foundation, the “statutes and the laws” of God (Ex. 18:20).

Moreover, the Bible requires a jurisdictional separation between church and state. There is a difference between the work of Aaron (the high priest) and Moses (the civil ruler). Some laws apply exclusively to the ecclesiastical realm (church) and some exclusively to the civil realm (state). The sword is never designated to compel people to become part of the covenant community. When King Uzziah violated this jurisdictional separation between temple and state, he was opposed by the priesthood and punished by God (1 Kings 16:19).

The “supreme law of the land” phrase in the Constitution (Art. VI, clause 2) refers to its delegated powers. Any student of the Constitution knows that the document itself has very little law in it. For example, the Constitution does not prohibit rape, murder, theft, or child abuse. So a person’s oath to uphold the Constitution does not mean that he can’t apply his understanding of biblical law to the civil sphere when it’s applicable. In fact, our law codes are replete with such laws, everything from prohibitions against rape and murder to theft and child abuse. Given atheistic/evolutionary assumptions, there can’t be prohibitions against these practices since they are the essence of what makes evolution what it is: The survival of the fittest.

The Constitution assumes there is a Higher Law. We know this from what the Founders themselves wrote on the subject. Some saw Higher law manifested in natural law (“laws of nature and nature’s God”), some saw it in terms of revealed law (“Thou shalt not steal”), and others saw a joint relationship between revealed and natural law, with revealed law having precedence1

Following Blackstone on this, Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), signer of the Constitution, argued: “The law of nature, ‘which, being coeval with mankind and 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, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.”2

Rufus King (1755–1827), another signer of the Constitution and a vice-presidential candidate, wrote something similar: “[The] law established by the Creator, which has existed from the beginning, extends over the whole globe, is everywhere and at all times binding upon mankind. . . . [This] is the law of God by which He makes His way known to man and is paramount to all human control.”3 King understood that God’s law “is the foundation of all constitutional & civil laws.”4 In 1819, during the debates that would eventually lead to the Missouri Compromise, King appealed to God’s law in his opposition to slavery:

I have yet to learn that one man can make a slave of another. If one man cannot do so, no number of individuals can have any better right to do it. And I hold that all laws and compacts imposing any such condition upon any human being are absolutely void, because contrary to the law of nature, which is the law of God, by which he makes his ways known to man, and is paramount to all human control.5

It’s obvious that Hamilton and King saw no conflict in supporting the Constitution and acknowledging the universal (global) validity of God’s law.

Historian David Brion Davis makes the claim in reference to King’s comments before the Senate gallery in 1819 that “up to that time no statesman or political leader in the world had publicly made such a radical declaration of slavery’s illegality.”6 If the Constitution was the moral law of the land, then King did not have an argument since the Constitution did not prohibit slavery. But if the Constitution rested on an external moral standard, then his point was well made.

John Quincy Adams, the son of President Adams, writing 50 years after the ratification of the Constitution in The Jubilee of the Constitution, argued the following point: “[T]he laws of nature . . . of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and government.”7 He goes on to state that the people “are under a moral responsibility to the Supreme Ruler of the universe.”8 Who is this “Supreme Ruler”? He is the God of the Bible.9

Adams describes the Declaration of Independence as “the ark of your covenant” and “Mount Gerizim is the Constitution of the United States.”10 He concludes The Jubilee of the Constitution with these words of warning for our generation, a generation that would attempt to separate God’s law from government:

In that scene of tremendous and awful solemnity, narrated in the Holy Scriptures [Deut. 28], there is not a curse pronounced against the people, upon Mount Ebal, not a blessing promised them upon Mount Gerizim, which your posterity may not suffer or enjoy, from your and their adherence to, or departure from, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, practically interwoven in the Constitution of the United States. Lay up these principles, then, in your hearts, and in your souls — bind them for signs upon your hands, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes — teach them to your children, speaking of them when sitting in your houses, when walking by the way, when lying down and when rising up — write them upon the doorplates of your houses, and upon your gates — cling to them as to the issues of life — adhere to them as to the cords of your eternal salvation. So may your children’s children at the next return of this day of jubilee, after a full century of experience under your national Constitution, celebrate it again in the full enjoyment of all the blessings recognised by you in the commemoration of this day, and of all the blessings promised to the children of Israel upon Mount Gerizim, as the reward of obedience to the law of God.11

The Constitution lacks a moral base. Our Founders, based on what we read in the Declaration of Independence, probably believed that no one would give up the idea that God was the author of our laws. Darwin changed all that with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Neither God nor “the laws of nature” is possible in a world after Darwin. The Constitution will implement whatever law is deemed proper by “we the people.”

  1. William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. []
  2. Alexander Hamilton, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: 1768–1778, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 1:87. From The Farmer Refuted: or A More Impartial and Comprehensive View of the Dispute between Great-Britain and the Colonies (New York: James Rivington, 1775). []
  3. Rufus King, “Letter to C. Gore” (February 17, 1820) in The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King: Comprising His Letters, Private and Official, His Public Documents and His Speeches, ed. Charles R. King (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900), 4:276–277. Also see the extended note at the bottom of page 276. []
  4. King, “Letter to C. Gore,” 277. []
  5. Quoted in David Gary, “Rufus King and the Missouri Controversy,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. []
  6. Quoted in Gary, “Rufus King and the Missouri Controversy.” []
  7. John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution (New York: Samuel Colman, 1839), 13–14. []
  8. Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, 117. []
  9. Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, 118–119. []
  10. Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, 119. []
  11. Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution, 119–120. []