by ProfDave, ©2022
(Jan. 17, 2022) — The American constitution, arguably the most durable and successful in history, rests upon some fundamental assumptions about the nature of mankind. Assumptions ultimately derived from Christianity. The French Revolution, by way of contrast, which produced unsuccessful constitutions, changed like underwear, rested upon different assumptions, derived from Enlightenment and Greek sources.
What is a human being? Two American assumptions: 1) he/she is of intrinsic value and 2) he/she is not to be trusted. Two French assumptions: 1) he/she derives extrinsic value from the people, and 2) he/she (most of them) is basically good. Note: “the people” are always right, not every individual. Hmmh. A sweeping generalization, of course, but a fundamental difference of worldview.
American Assumptions. American democracy, as defined in its founding documents (as distinct from its modern function) rests on distinctively Christian assumptions about human nature. First, that each human being has primary and intrinsic value. By that I mean, their value is in their being human itself, independent of their status or usefulness, and they are more valuable than anything else. “Inalienable rights” are built in – resting on the Christian doctrine of creation in the “image of God.”
Implications: liberty – each individual is responsible to God to conduct themselves virtuously according to their conscience and should be given the liberty to do so. And equality – each has equal standing before God and, by implication, should be treated so by the state. This, in the 18th century, did not mean equal social, let alone economic conditions, but the old world distinctions of nobility and commoner passed away (sadly, not slavery). “In Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male nor female” etc.
Second, no human being can be totally trusted. This assumption was based on the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the fall and of universal depravity. And there is a good deal of historical and empirical evidence for that assumption! Mankind may have been created good, and still have good intentions, but human nature is fundamentally flawed. Every man has his price. The best of us are all vulnerable to corruption of one kind or another. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton).
In the minds of our founders, enlightened despotism produced George III. George Washington, the only president ever unanimously elected, was not going to be another King George. They did not trust any individual, party, branch of government, or even “the people.” So they wrote a Constitution that valued individuals, but did not trust them. So they wrote a Constitution that was purposely inefficient. No one man, no one party, no branch of government can get its way. Deadlock is the plan! Even popular vote is checked by the electoral college!
We are not trying to analyze the Constitution for you or solve the question of which of the 250 “Founding Fathers” were Christians and which weren’t. But clearly the Constitution as written rests on assumptions about humanity that come straight out of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, not Voltaire or Jean Jacques Rousseau.
No “enlightened despot,” “philosopher king,” Committee of Public Safety or even “the people’s will” would be allowed to impose their wisdom on the United States. These had been or soon would be installed in Europe – leading to repression and bloodshed. Great men can be corrupted or become paranoid, like Robespierre (or Nixon). Because human beings will run amuck, the damage must be contained. No sweeping measures would stand a chance in America. Deadlock and inaction are better than tyranny – even of the majority. There is something to be said for stability – even politics as usual.
French Assumptions: In this political year I am going back to 1789 and the constitutions of two revolutions. Two French assumptions: 1) a human being derives his/her value extrinsically from the people (not intrinsically from God), and 2) the people are presumed to be basically good. Evil comes from the environment. People are corrupted by poverty and ignorance. This is solved by restoring the unjust gains of the wealthy to the poor and enlightening the ignorant in the values of the revolution. The will of the people is to be expressed by their representatives. The results were a bloody mess, chaos, and repeated revolutions as one party after another sought to impose the “will of the people” on the people – who didn’t get it. Why is that?
Admittedly, I know a lot less about the French Revolution today than I did forty years ago, but the broad contrasts to the American Revolution are clear enough flying over in an airplane. Both were significantly influenced by Enlightenment thought, but the American revolutionaries saw God and the churches as allies of liberty while the French revolutionaries saw the church as an enemy. Americans generally retained the Judeo-Christian view of mankind as sacred but flawed.
The French Enlightenment viewed mankind along classical and secular lines. Human dignity was earned, not God given or inherited. Note: Athenian democracy applied only to male citizens, a fraction of the population, not ordinary people, women or slaves. The ‘enlightened’ are a different order of being from others. Their will is the people’s will. Since mankind is basically good (it is only backward conditions and backward thinking that makes people bad), there is no need for checks and balances. The way should be cleared for decisive action. ‘Good people’ (the properly enlightened) can be trusted, those who differ are expendable. Robespierre is incorruptible, to the guillotine with the rest!
Which is more democratic?
Today’s Assumptions: We have seen the indirect effects of Christian and secular views of mankind on the American and the French constitutions of the 18th century. No historian would confuse the neo-classicism of the Enlightenment with today’s secular Progressivism – or whatever you want to call it. But the same basic question divides, doesn’t it?
What is a human being? Does his/her worth come from God or from society? Do rights come from God or from the government? Is the source of evil humanity itself or ignorance and environment? Are ‘we’ worth more than ‘they’ because we are “the people” or are each of us responsible to God equally? Can any man or woman or party be trusted to set the world straight without being checked and examined at every step? Or are all subject to temptation? Is a philosopher king the ideal form of government (Plato’s Republic) and what is to prevent it from becoming a totalitarian dictatorship?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.