In a previous article, I introduced the concept of sphere sovereignty and discussed the role of natural law. This Christian social thought played an important role in the American founding. The United States of America as it was originally established is perhaps more or less best understood as an agreement between two diverse groups of thinkers of that time. One group was decidedly Christian while the other group embraced a more naturalistic philosophy that viewed God through the religious lens of deism.
Views of the Deists
While the deistic view of the world rejected the notion of original sin and human depravity, it affirmed the concept of a natural law that was established by God, or which existed of its own accord. Generally, theorists of this mindset affirmed God’s transcendence, but denied his immanence. They believed that God was the one who established the universe and set it in motion. They acknowledged that he designed it to operate according to certain laws and principles that extended to the moral realm of human action. However, they rejected the idea that God was present and active in his creation. Thus, they rejected the concept of biblical miracles such as the virgin birth, the incarnation of Christ, and the atonement for sin. Instead, they adopted the viewpoint that human beings were basically good and that their character was perfected as they interacted in the world and learned from their mistakes. The main problem as they saw matters was a lack of information and education, which resulted in human suffering. Following this line of reasoning they thought that human problems would be resolved in the course of time as new discoveries were made and disseminated.
Witherspoon vs. Paine
Religiously speaking, the two views are quite far apart from one another. Indeed, the different conceptions of God and of human nature led to more than a little conflict between these two different camps of social thinkers. For example, in 1776, John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a staunch Protestant who served as president of Princeton, delivered a sermon defending the Christian doctrines of God’s sovereign rule over all creation and of original sin. In that sermon, Witherspoon quoted from Thomas Paine’s popular pamphlet, Common Sense. In his pamphlet, Paine adopted the Unitarian position, attacked the concept of original sin, and used that attack as part of his overarching reason for rejecting British rule. On this count, Witherspoon went to great length to counter Paine’s attack on the Christian religion and to reassert the doctrine of original sin by offering supportive evidence for its validity. After quoting Paine on the matter, Witherspoon immediately went on the offensive by posing a series of penetrating questions that called on Paine to give an answer if he could. In attacking Paine, Witherspoon made it clear how repulsive he found Paine’s assertions and how weak he thought Paine’s position was.[i]
The sermon demonstrated in no uncertain terms the great religious divide that separated these two different perspectives on the world and on human life. Yet, interestingly enough, at the end of the sermon, Witherspoon gave his own reasons for joining Paine in supporting the American Revolution by telling his audience about the biblical restrictions on the rulers of this world. In doing this, he called on his fellow Christians to take the same stand as a matter of their Christian duty. Therefore, though the Unitarians and the Christians were far apart religiously, both camps affirmed certain features of the purpose government and of human anthropology that led to an agreement upon which the United States was founded.
Liberty, Responsibility, and Limited Government
In particular, both groups recognized the volitional nature of human beings. Moreover, both affirmed that people are creatures capable of self-determined action. As a result, both affirmed the notion that people are individually responsible for their own actions and should, therefore, bear the consequences of their behavior. As such, both groups affirmed the idea that certain actions invariably result in certain consequences and that these consequences serve a useful purpose in the process of the individual’s character development. In this sense, both groups recognized and affirmed the concept of sphere sovereignty and, therefore, recognized the limited nature of government. In addition, they shared a distrust of the concentration of power in the hands of governmental authorities. Natural law theorists recognized that the negative consequences of human error could be significantly magnified by such power. While Christian thinkers believed that sinful men would inevitably abuse such power, the deists believed that ill-informed, misguided rulers with too much power would end up doing the same thing. Moreover, both sides recognized the extensive historical evidence that collective power had been routinely misused.
Within the context of the agreement on these foundational issues, the two groups were able to reach a consensus about the fundamental role of government. This led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the eventual drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Constitution, the federal government was authorized to play a fairly limited role in the affairs of men. In addition, it was constructed in such a way as to dissipate power through a series of checks and balances that were intended to keep governmental officials in compliance with their oaths of office. The principles articulated in drafting of the founding documents should have also affected the organization of state and local governments since they reflected the political thought of the day and to some extent they did. Unfortunately, these principles did not always serve as the bedrock of such state and local government action. Nevertheless, the fundamental liberty of the individual was essentially affirmed at the nation’s founding. Liberty and personal responsibility were understood to go hand-in-hand and it was hoped that on this base the good society would develop.
[i] John Witherspoon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” The Patriot’s Handbook, edited by George Grant, (Elkton, Maryland: Highland Books, 1996), pp. 93-114.