Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Judeo-Christian Philosophy and the Founding of America
By Michael Marriott

A curious notion is mushrooming lately on programs such as “The O’Reilly Factor” and other current events shows. Certain commentators claim that the United States of America owes its existence to what is termed “Judeo-Christian” philosophy. Now I will not dispute that such a philosophy exists or that it has proved influential for the past two millennia. I will further stipulate that many persons subscribe to this philosophy’s doctrines, both now and back in the 1700s. What cannot be accepted, either on a philosophical or historical basis, is that such a philosophy could, or in fact did, lead to the creation of the United States. This is because the political theory underpinning the creation of America is contradictory to every religious philosophy on earth. Thus Judeo-Christian philosophy is incapable of creating a country such as the United States. America exists in spite of Judeo-Christian philosophy, not because of it.

Others disagree. Bill O’Reilly has repeatedly argued that America would not exist or have developed as a country save for Judeo-Christian philosophy. On September 10, 2003, O’Reilly discussed this point with failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork:

O'REILLY: Now, I have always based my determination that the Ten Commandments and the Pledge of Allegiance and all this nonsense about the Boy Scouts are definitely wrong by saying that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian philosophy. All right? Philosophy. And that if you strike that philosophy from the public discourse, from the public discourse, you are basically turning your back on how the country was developed. Am I wrong?

BORK: No, you're right. On the other hand if legislatures decided to turn their back on it, and the public approved of it, that would be one thing. But what is quite wrong is to have judges who are not elected, who are not accountable, decide to knock out these traditional values.

A few days earlier on September 3, 2003 O’Reilly argued with a guest, Professor Marcy Hamilton of Cardoza Law School, regarding the same point. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News analyst, supports O’Reilly’s thesis. The topic under discussion is the removal of a Ten Commandments display in an Alabama state building being fought by Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore.

O'REILLY: They believe that there was no -- and I believe this as well -- that there was no imposition of religion by having a symbol of the 10 commandments, which is what Judeo-Christian philosophy is based on and vis a vis our laws are based on Judeo-Christian philosophy.

Discussion follows

O'REILLY: He (Judge Moore) says it was a reminder of what our law system is based upon.

HAMILTON: Well, he's -- actually, that's factually wrong.

NAPOLITANO: That's factually correct.


NAPOLITANO: It's historically accurate. Everybody who wrote the constitution believes in the 10 commandments and they stated...

O'REILLY: Hold it. What do you think our criminal justice is based upon? Why don't we have Islamic law here?

HAMILTON: It's based upon the Magna Carta, the common law of England, the code of Hammurabi (ph) and a lot of other sources.

NAPOLITANO: One of which is the 10 commandments.


NAPOLITANO: No, the framers did not intend to impose any particular religion on this country because they...

O'REILLY: But it isn't an imposition of religion to put in a plaque. All right now I don't believe that our law system was based on the magna carta. Okay, I don't believe that for one second. Not one second.

And I think your interpretation of that is crazy...

HAMILTON: Well, and you are...

O'REILLY: And I'll tell you why.

HAMILTON: Well, and you are too.

O'REILLY: We fought a war against those people. No, I'm not. I'm right. We fought a war against those people because the magna carta was instituted in a hierarchical way. Our law is based on all men are created and have inalienable rights, not that the king can impose what he


O'REILLY: So you're wrong on that, professor.

What exactly is Judeo-Christian philosophy? What are its basic tenets and principles and how do they apply to the founding of the United States? O’Reilly never provides a definition. This is a crucial omission as religions contain diverse strains of philosophical thought. For instance, within the Catholic religion one can find differing, even contradictory, philosophical elements. St. Augustine decried reason except when it was used to illuminate the word of God. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized the majesty of human reason to the point of again establishing philosophy as the proper tool for human study of the natural world. Outside of Catholicism one finds the teachings of Protestants as Martin Luther and John Calvin. To what version of Judeo-Christian philosophy does O’Reilly refer when he makes his assertions?

O’Reilly often refers to the central characters of the Bible as philosophers. Yet it is a stretch to consider two such characters, Jesus and Moses, as philosophers using any standard definition of the term. The Oxford Dictionary definition for philosopher is “one versed in philosophy or engaged in its study.” Neither Moses nor Jesus was a philosopher in this sense. Neither worked out (nor even attempted) a completely integrated philosophical system. Neither used reason to discover natural, or fundamental, truth. Moses presented the revealed word of God as contained in the Ten Commandments; Jesus was an itinerant preacher whose primary concerns were the impending end of the world and personal ethics. As Frederick Copleston wrote, “He (Jesus) sent His Apostles to preach, not to occupy professors’ chairs. Christianity was ‘the Way’, a road to God to be trodden in practice, not one more philosophical system added to the systems and schools of antiquity.” The philosophic aspects of both Judaism and Christianity were actually developed hundreds of years after the appearance of the central characters.

The argument that America was founded due to Judeo-Christian philosophy therefore reduces to two primary points. First, many of the founding fathers were nominally Jewish or Christian. This being true, O’Reilly is led to the conclusion that religious philosophy played a central role in their political theory and by implication the creation of the country. Second, the Declaration of Independence contains references to God and a Creator, to wit, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This passage illustrates the founders’ belief that political power flows from God directly to the people. This is offered as further proof that America was the result of Judeo-Christian philosophy.

Let us consider each point in turn. Without question a number of the founding fathers subscribed to either the Jewish or Christian religions. Some of the them were deists, some agnostics, others true believers while still others free thinkers. Then as now a wide range of religious thought existed. Yet even if every signer of the Declaration of Independence was steeped in piety and possessed in-depth knowledge of Judeo-Christian philosophy one cannot then declare the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Thus the first weakness of this argument is that of fallacy of composition. This fallacy occurs when one finds a characteristic true of each member of a group (in this case a particular religious belief) and proceeds to the conclusion that the characteristic is true of the whole (America was founded on the philosophy of that religious belief).

But a more serious flaw exists. To blindly emphasize only the religious alignment of the founders fails to take into account other influences that had a much greater impact on eighteenth century political thought. Of particular import is that all the founding fathers lived in the age of the Enlightenment, a humanist (or secular) intellectual movement. One source comments, “Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.” This philosophy stands in total contrast to Judeo-Christian thought. Thus secular philosophers exerted more influence in the formation of American than O’Reilly cares to admit. John Locke’s political theory permeates the Declaration of Independence. Montesquieu’s ideas concerning separation of powers were a crucial theoretical construct within the Constitution.

The model of ancient Rome’s republic had considerable impact as well. The institution of the Senate, Latin for council of old men, is one example of borrowing from Rome. Indeed, American governmental concepts based on the Roman model are too numerous to be coincidental: the rule of law, representative assemblies, courts, term limits, civilian control of the military, election of government officials and so on. Further, the very words conveying these concepts betray their Latin/Roman origins: constitution, federal, republic, representative, vote, president, magistrate, congress, veto, quorum and statute suffice as examples. Even the architecture of our nation’s capitol reflects Greco-Roman influences and values. Lest we forget, Anglo-Saxons contributed to the future United States with concepts such as common law, trial by jury and yes, the Magna Carta.

Clearly more was involved intellectually regarding the formation of the United States than Judeo-Christian philosophy, however one chooses to define it. A fallacy where the speaker asserts a conclusion that seems reasonable but has left out a relevant fact(s) that would change the conclusion if it were known is called the fallacy of neglected aspect. Thus O’Reilly commits this fallacy when he focuses solely on Judeo-Christian philosophy as central to the founding of America.

The second point regarding the use of the words God and creator in the Declaration of Independence may be answered more quickly. Essentially, the use of these words proves absolutely nothing. Taken in context the founders were expressing their belief in the natural rights of man. Their point is valid regardless of who or what created human beings. Man qua nature values liberty so that he may pursue those ends necessary to sustain life. That the founding fathers believed in God as the creator of man is not the point. Man created by God, evolution, Martians or an assembly line still leaves us with man’s nature as it exists in reality.

But there is an overarching issue that O’Reilly, et. al., fail to consider. If Judeo-Christian philosophy was the essential ingredient in creation of the United States one would expect such a country to have arisen hundreds of years before 1776 when religion, specifically the Catholic Church, was at the zenith of its power and influence. That such a country did not materialize is because philosophically it could not have; more precisely the Judeo-Christian philosophy prevented it absolutely. Why should this so? It is instructive to briefly review how religious leaders ruled when they had the opportunity to implement this philosophy to create political states.

For the better part of its history prior to the eighteenth century the Catholic Church functioned in a manner antithetical to all the United States of America represents. The Church is neither democratic nor representative in governance. It was (and is) hierarchical in organization with the pope at the apex ruling in a manner envied by his fellow monarchs. As one who speaks the word of God there were few real checks on the pope’s power. Dictatorial power led to abuses; elements within the church at one time employed torture to prod unbelievers and heretics. Fantastic schemes were devised to sell indulgences to the ignorant so that a soul could get to heaven in a timely manner. Free and independent inquiry was suppressed, as one would expect when inmates run the asylum. Debate was not tolerated, due process unknown.

Church leaders were an elite that could not be tried in secular courts. Priests jealously guarded their privileges, including the secret of literacy and interpretation of the Bible. The Church of the Middle Ages conspired endlessly with governments of the time to suppress human freedom. The idea that church and state should be separate would have provoked howls of laughter from any self-respecting medieval tyrant. Human slavery was neither eradicated nor strenuously condemned by church leaders. While some church philosophers did believe in the metaphysical equality of men (particularly during the Renaissance) the idea was never fully developed or acted upon. The common people were regarded as “sheep” and lived lives of drudgery while top Church leaders lived in palaces, dined exquisitely and enjoyed the company of concubines.

Protestant faiths did little better when given free reign. While power was more diffuse and the organization chart flatter within Protestant sects, torture could still be trotted out for the edification of those pesky heretics. No American founding fathers here, theocracy rather than republic was the preferred government when Protestant leaders had the chance to nation build. John Calvin’s Geneva experiment was marked by tyranny, intolerance, strict conformity and terror. One source comments, “In addition it (Calvin’s Church) set up a consistory of pastors and elders to make all aspects of Genevan life conform to God's law. It undertook a wide range of disciplinary actions covering everything from the abolition of Roman Catholic “superstition” to the enforcement of sexual morality, the regulation of taverns, and measures against dancing, gambling, and swearing.” Puritan Oliver Cromwell grabbed power in England quickly (declaring Providence chose him) at the end of the civil war in the 1640s. Like Calvin, he became a dictator whose rule was characterized by religious conformity and suppression of individual expression. The Puritans sent packing to the New World tolerated individual freedom for as long as it took to light a fire beneath a suspected witch’s feet.

The idea that America owes its existence to Judeo-Christian philosophy is an insult to the intellect. This notion gives religion an achievement it never earned and indeed never wanted. Judeo-Christian philosophy by definition is unconcerned with earthly existence. Its focus is on another world attainable only through death. While men lived under the sway of Judeo-Christian thought in the Dark and Middle Ages, the consistent outcome was misery, poverty, disease, exploitation and starvation within a milieu of deep intellectual stagnation. Only when the power of the Church was broken— first by the Reformation, second by the Renaissance and third by the Enlightenment — did the lot of the common man begin to improve. Only when secular philosophers devised theories concentrating on existence in this world did mankind advance. Only when a group of talented, intelligent, secular humanists saw the possibility of forging these theories into a governmental entity was hope kindled. At that moment in time the United States became possible. The result was a country unknown to history: a government founded on the idea that the proper object of man is furtherance of life on Earth. This is the true meaning of the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. I challenge O’Reilly or anyone else to demonstrate where any religion, at any time or any place, has made this idea a tenet of its philosophy.

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