Most Americans may not realize the biblical roots of Constitutional law that actually protect them from being subject to a theocracy. Biblical principles are rooted in freedom, not coercion. And freedom and independence are predicated on the reality that moral absolutes exist universally independent from government regulation, oversight, or policies.
Of the more than 2,000 Bible verses that teach civics, the majority offer examples of fair, just, and evil rulers, judges, and political authorities and the ways in which they governed. Six of the Ten Commandments greatly influenced Western legal definitions of murder, manslaughter, theft, assault, marriage, birth, and other civil and criminal matters, and their associated judicial oversight and punishment.
Many legal and moral principles outlined by Mosaic Law are reflected in the Bill of Rights and in traditional legal oath-taking processes. Non-coincidentally, in American courts of law it is customary to require that one’s testimony be given under oath after raising their right hand, placing their right hand on the Bible, and stating, “So help me God” after affirming to offer truthful testimony.
In the Bible, God swears to oaths using his right hand (Ezek. 20:15, 23, 36:7; Psalm 106:26; Isa. 62:8). God also instructed his people to swear by his name, raising their right hand when taking oaths (Deut. 10:20). No other religion, religious book, or records of testimony about any other God, provide such instruction. Yet, American legal practice in its entirety since its founding required the phrase “So help me God” to part of legal oaths whether taken by elected officials, appointed judges, jurors or witnesses in courts of law.
Several state legal codes required oath takers to swear not just by God, but “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Connecticut 1639). Georgia law instructed that oaths not only be taken with one’s right hand on the Bible, but also on “the holy evangelist of Almighty God,” meaning the four gospels of the New Testament (1756). Virginia’s law, written by Thomas Jefferson, required oath-takers “shall swear … ‘So help you God’” when taking public office (Nov. 25, 1776). North Carolina required oath takers to “kiss the Holy Gospels” (1777).
But the Founding Fathers also recognized oath taking by public officials as a religious activity. James Madison, the architect of the Bill of Rights, argued, “An oath … is the strongest of religious ties.”
John Adams, America’s second president and signer of the Declaration of Independence attested, “Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations.”
Another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Wolcott, who supported state adoption of the federal Constitution, said in 1788, “The Constitution enjoins an oath upon all the officers of the United States. This is a DIRECT APPEAL TO THAT GOD Who is the avenger of perjury. Such an appeal to Him is a full acknowledgement of His being and providence.”
Recorded eye-witness accounts detail George Washington’s swearing in as America’s first president in America’s first Capitol, New York City, on May 3, 1789. Washington placed his hand on a Bible, administered his oath proclaiming, “So help me God,” and kissed the Gospels, as was customary to the law of New York.
The First Commandment religious freedom and self-governance are defined in the First Commandment, family governance in the Second, private property rights in the Fifth, and a fair trial with witnesses in the Sixth.
The founding fathers knew this, recalling Exodus 18 and 21, Leviticus 18, Ezekiel 3, and Isaiah 33:22, among others, understanding the Judeo-Christian God, the Lord, as lawgiver, judge, and king. Following this model, they devised three branches of government. Congress, the legislative branch—represents the lawgiver; the judicial branch—the judge, and the executive branch—the king, primary ruler, head of government.
But the founding fathers also knew the danger of authoritarian rule that some Puritans had tried to implement in 17th century American colonies.
For example, a non-Puritan and someone who didn’t agree with Puritan laws, would not have been able to live in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop, a Puritan attorney and its governor, sought to instill a magisterial government that prohibited anyone from voting unless the magistrate approved the specific Christian men who fit its criteria. Winthrop opposed codifying laws, believing that democracy was “the meanest and worst of all forms of government.”
The “City on a Hill” to which Winthrop referred in an often-quoted sermon, ended up being a place that excluded anyone who disagreed with magisterial rule. His colony effectively illustrated the very non-Biblical values that restrain freedom and liberty—and the opposite of meaning of the teaching he referenced.
Upon arrival to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, English clergyman and lawyer Roger Williams opposed Winthrop’s form of government. But the Colony’s rulers didn’t allow for free thought or speech. They rejected his notion of “freedom of conscience.” First the magistrates placed Williams under house arrest. He was forbidden from discussing his ideas. But when he continued to speak his mind– in his own home– the magistrates banished him from the colony. Next, they changed their mind and sought to kill him.
Winthrop warned Williams, who fled, leaving his family behind. His suffering was great he and barely survived. Because of this, he wrote one of the most influential treatises in history, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. Thomas Jefferson not only read Williams’s treatise, but also John Locke’s, Two Treatises of Government, in which Locke referenced over 1,500 Bible verses.
Were it not for Roger Williams’s influence, it’s unlikely Thomas Jefferson would have written what he did in the Declaration of Independence. In it, Jefferson references God four times:
- “The laws of nature and nature’s God,”
- All men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,”
- “The Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and
- “The protection of Divine Providence.”
Jefferson intentionally declared that a deity exists and is knowable by human reason. He identified this deity as a creatorand judge. He asked in Notes on the State of Virginia:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God?”
Foundational to the Declaration of Independence was creationism and morality. As John Adams remarked,
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The founders ensured the validity of freedom originating from God, not man. Their assurance rested in “In God We Trust,” printed on American money, and in “One Nation Under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Bible is most often used when courts require oaths of office for U.S. Presidents and elected officials. The Judeo-Christian God is mentioned in all 50 state constitutions. The Supreme Court opens each session verbally declaring, “God save the United States of America.”
The founders did not seek to create a theocracy understanding Biblical Christianity to be non-coercive. They understood that only through Biblical principles freedom and liberty exist (Gal. 5:1). As Dostoevsky and others from atheist countries assert, “if there is no God, everything is permitted.”
The founders knew that in every human spirit lies an innate desire to be free. That spirit of freedom became the personification of American character.
As Ronald Reagan said in 1952,
America is less of a place than an idea, and if it is an idea, and I believe that to be true, it is an idea that has been deep in the souls of Man.”
As the soul informs the mind, heart, and body, it also informs every area of life in which people live—including politics.