A question has been circulating for some time, and it’s one that’s worth investigating.

Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles?

It’s an interesting question considering the times we live in. Church attendance in the West is down, with increasing numbers of people either rejecting religion altogether or at least agnostic. Further, the question becomes clouded when the United States Constitution itself claims “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Recently, the state of Texas’ Senate passed a bill requiring the displaying of the 10 Commandments in school classrooms. Some have decried this as a violation of Church and State, an illegal intrusion of religion into the classroom, and an act that goes against the United States Constitution. Further, the argument of the United States being founded upon Judeo-Christian principles has also been entered into the argument, the question being does any governmental body have the right to such displays in classrooms or anywhere else.

One side insists that it is perfectly fine, for reasons already stated, while the other says a hard “no”.

If we were to look at the free exercise clause of the Constitution, we must consider the purpose of the Constitution itself. That document was meant as a set of guard rails for the national government, meaning it was designed to specifically impose limits on the federal government, not state governments. In fact, the oft forgotten 10th Amendment to the constitution was specifically put in place to safeguard rights of the states against the federal government, a fact often forgotten by would-be constitutional critics and commentators. This nation is founded on states’ rights, not a federal all-powerful overlord.

Having said that, the Establishment Clause refers to the federal government, not state level government. Therefore, if a state wishes to create a law that allows the posting of the 10 Commandments, they are free to do so, without interference from the federal government. This is no different than the state of Utah aligning itself with Mormon principles (the practice of polygamy, a remnant of the original Mormon church, is not legal but has been greatly reduced to an ‘infraction’, meaning there is little penalty – again, a reflection of the overriding religious component there).

With that said, it is certainly within the rights of Texas to require the posting of the 10 Commandments within Texas school law, until someone challenges it in court, or the state decides to take a different direction. Agreeing or disagreeing is fine, and the voters of Texas will have their say, but to assert the federal constitution does not allow a state that right is simply incorrect, and a misunderstanding of constitutional limits.

The Constitution and Judeo-Christian Principles

The next question becomes whether the United States Constitution is based on Judeo-Christian principles as that controversy is the most frequently exercised argument both for and against including such items as the 10 Commandments in schools. The answer is a rather complicated one, with roots not only in the history of the nation, but also the period in which the nation was formed (The Enlightenment), along with the consideration of those that founded the document itself.

First, there is the notion, and one that is supported by history and scholarship that the Constitution was written in support of the doctrines contained in the Declaration of Independence. In other words, the Declaration of Independence was written expressing the goals of the nation as well as its purpose, with the subsequent Constitution of the United States created to support those goals. Some scholars have stated the Declaration of Independence was the first Constitution, with the written US Constitution a more precise guarantee of the individual rights the Declaration of Independence laid out.

With that said, and considering the historical context of the period in which both documents were written, one could conclude rather easily the foundational document of the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution were founded with Judeo-Christian beliefs “front and center.” References to Providence, “guaranteed by their creator,” and the belief that we are “born with certain inalienable rights,” tacit proof that the Founders, indeed, were influenced by Judeo-Christian principles.

Many of the Founders were either Christian or deists, meaning a belief in a higher power, but not necessarily Catholic, Lutheran, or any other denomination. Indeed, most were against organized religion itself, rather preferring to acknowledge spirituality and God in their own way, the history of organized religion on the continent of Europe one of controversy and bloodshed since before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517.

Said dislike of organized religion was also part and parcel of the Enlightenment as well, again, with so much religious conflict front and center of so many problems in the recent European past (at that time). However, John Locke, the 17th century philosopher upon whose ideas so much of the Declaration and Constitution were based upon was, absolutely, a religious man (his views changed over time, his religious views not wavering but ‘adjusting’) and it would be difficult to think his views on natural law were not influenced by his religious belief. Further, reading the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, one can see Locke’s direct influence throughout the declarations of the Declaration of Independence, most notably in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” which in Locke’s original work, Two Treatise on Civil Government stated life, liberty, and property.[1]

None is absolute proof as the men who wrote the documents are no longer here to ask, but inferences can be made regarding not only direct wording, but actual mention of Providence and God. If we take the Constitution to be an extension of sorts of the Declaration of Independence, the fusion theory as it’s called, there is no question God, or Judeo-Christian principles were/are present in both documents.

That leaves us with Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, the attempt to bring to a close the problem of the Barbary Pirates. 

The Treaty of Tripoli

Without going into the entire treaty’s history, the Treaty of Tripoli was an attempt to make an agreement with Tripoli (now Libya) to secure trade rights along with slowing or stopping the Barbary pirate attacks on American shipping. 

The key for this analysis is Article 11 which states:

“Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

The key for most who dispute the existence of Judeo-Christian principles in the two documents that formed our government is this part: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….”

Two problems arise with using Article 11.

First, where most people stop is right after the phrase, “founded on the Christian religion…” Going beyond that phrase, it is quite clear that President Adams was referring to religion not being an overriding concern regarding trade relations as well as the decisions to engage in such trade. President Adams is making quite clear there was no enmity between Tripoli and the United States before the Barbary pirates, especially in a religious sense, a direct reference to the problems encountered during the Crusades, an event five hundred years prior but still resonating in the minds of Muslims during the period. Even today, such references abound when dealing with the Middle East, so why would it not be so in 1796? 

Reading the entirety of Article 11, it is also clear the intention was not to declare the United States divorced from religion during its creation, but rather an assurance to Tripoli and the Beg (it’s leader), religion would play no role in the relationship between the two nations.

Further, Article 11 does not appear in the Muslim version of the Treaty, something rather odd, but only in the translation of the American version presented to the Senate for approval. 

Quoting Professor Frank Lambert of Purdue University, the intent of Article 11 was to “allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced…”

It should be remembered that those who came to this nation were under the auspices of rather invasive religious practices be they in Great Britain where the Church of England reigned supreme, or in other European locations wherein it was custom shrouded in antiquity that those who resided in a state reflected the religion of their government or monarch. The Lutheran Reformation changed much of that with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, and the Enlightenment furthered the toleration of different religious practices in the 18thcentury. However, religion was still a major consideration not only for those of the well-to-do classes, but the common people even more so. The “enlightened class,” from which the Founders came, were more skeptical, yet still of a religious bent. 

It is no stretch to think the there was a difference in meaning of the establishment clause in those days…much different than we see it today. 

However, to equate the existence of the United States separate and apart from a religious context would be to demonstrate a cursory understanding of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself.

This does not mean to say religion is sanctioned by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, for especially in the case of the latter, sanctioning religion, meaning funding it or supporting one religion over another with funding, is strictly prohibited by the Establishment Clause. However, there is little doubt both documents, especially when considering either the fusion theory or the “apple of gold” theory were formed with a consideration of the Judeo-Christian God in mind. 

[1] Mr. Jefferson was said to have changed the wording because, “it sounded better.”