I recently got into a discussion with a co-worker about the role of religion in the governing of the United States. He thinks that Christianity is central to the founding philosophy of our nation, and that the Bible has inspired our Constitution and our laws. I disagree with all of those premises.
Only through selective reading of the Bible and supporting literature dealing with the history of western culture can one make the inference that supports the notions that human rights, liberty, and equality come from the Christian god, or any other god for that matter. Objective reading and understanding of those same sources would clearly negate those claims.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was one of the main expositors in his time, of the concept of inalienable human rights. While Jefferson had a deistic belief in a god of the universe, he rejected nearly every single tenet of Christian orthodoxy. This can be seen in his letter from Oct. 31, 1819 to William Short, in which he named and rejected the following: The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. So whatever belief in inalienable rights depends upon, by Jefferson’s viewpoint, it does not depend upon believing in those central tenets of Christianity. We can then reasonably infer that it is not by virtue of belief in those things that our notions of inalienable human rights derive.
Another point I made to my friend that deflates the argument he was trying to make, involved the legal slave trade in early America. If our concept of human rights rests with the Bible and come from the god of that book, then slavery would still be o.k., or it would never have been alright. While many religious traditions have allowed slavery, the Bible never condemns it nor calls for its abolition. During the American debate over slavery, so-called Christian defenders of slavery could cite specific biblical passages in the Old and New Testaments supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue using general doctrines such as the creation of man in God’s image that denied the justice of slavery, yet they couldn’t cite any specific passage of the Bible in defense of their position. This would appear to be a clear case of the moral teachings of the Bible needing the reader to come to it with a prior moral viewpoint that must then be read into the Bible. If that’s the case, then this view of what is clearly a higher moral definition, does not then come from the Bible, but is read into the Bible by those holding to this moral principle.
Thus, the history of Christianity itself is a very strong argument against any connection between human rights and that particular belief system. If there were a connection, why did it take almost nineteen hundred years for that basic human right to disallow being owned by another person to be recognized by Christian society as an absolute? The obvious answer is that Christianity had nothing to do with it. It was the result of social and cultural changes entirely independent of Biblical philosophy.
Moreover, the very concept of universalism of the Bible is in serious doubt. I don’t see a universal morality in the Old Testament. Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children, for example, manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament. And yet, as I pointed out to my friend, other cultures which are not even theistic at all do exhibit universal moralities that match or supercede those of Christianity. Buddhism is a perfect example of a non-theistic philosophy that has among the highest order of morals on the planet. Even many purely secular societies and their systems of governance have very high moral concepts exhibited within their social and constitutional frameworks. Even the United States can make the claim of secular morality not being dependent on any religious edicts. Nowhere in the Constitution is there a mention of religion of any sort or denomination, save the instruction that no office of the land will ever require a religious test for one to accede to it or hold it. This would seem to negate the claim of religion being central to the Constitution to an even more finite degree.
Now, of course, the New Testament does seem more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. Yet Jesus is quoted as teaching that those who follow him must hate their families in order to attain the kingdom he was promising. A very troubling viewpoint in the light of the claims of brotherly love and peace made by Christian apologists. Also, the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in bloody battle. The bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity.
Should those who believe in the distortions that negate the role of secular societal constructs in the founding of America be allowed to make their arguments unchallenged, then their view will someday be the only one that gets heard in the marketplace of ideas. I challenge them and their allegations at every turn. Whether I change one mind or no minds on these topics, I at least have a clear conscience on the matter.