In response to a question posed by a friend I am posting a short essay I wrote for a literature class on the appeal to ‘religion’ in support of political ideals used by several early American writers. Bear in mind this is written from a secular viewpoint for a secular school, although I manage to interject some truth into it. I wish I could do an entire treatise on the subject as I would blast these ‘social-gospel’ heretics who think Christ came to ‘spread the wealth around.’ Well, without further ado:
For centuries, many a Christian has sought to redeem God’s creation from the ravages of sin and the fall of man. They have appealed to both the covenant made with Adam in the beginning, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (The New American Standard Bible Gen. 1:28). They have appealed to the Great Commission Christ gave His apostles before He left this world. Sir Thomas More even wrote a book about this Utopia. Although this author has fundamental and Biblical disagreements with the premise of this ‘heaven on earth,’ it is a clear fact that this concept of creating idealistic societies and forms of government has received much support from Christian circles. This paper will address three early American authors, whose writings employed the word of God in the Bible, and the ethereal Creator of all nature in order to serve this purpose.
One of Merriam-Webster’s definition of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society” (Merriam-Webster). In A Model of Christian Charity, John Winthrop used the Bible frequently to demonstrate what he believed God’s vision for this “complex of relations” to be for the early Massachusetts Bay colonists. He very systematically details a plan that reads like a military operations order. He addresses the people this order applies to (the who), and then focuses on the mission (the what). Next he describes the purpose (the why), and finally speaks of the method of execution (the how) (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 78, 79).
The political environment, or the goal, Winthrop seeks to create using the Bible, is to be a community that advances the kingdom of God. Many will remember President Reagan’s use of the “city on a hill” image in describing the goodness of the American people, but Reagan was in fact inspired by Winthrop’s original quote from the book of Matthew (in the Bible). Winthrop argues that the colony has to be a beacon of light; a shining example of civil living and brotherly love (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 80). This is in keeping with the later passage from Matthew commonly known as the Great Commission. Here, Christ tells His followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (The New American Standard Bible Matt. 28:20). Winthrop clearly wishes to use the colony in that purpose; that their reputation may spark an interest in the natives of their God.
Olaudah Equiano’s, Narrative of the Life does not argue for the abolishment for slavery with references from Scripture, though Equiano does quote the Bible throughout. But Equiano makes one heart-wrenching appeal that this author cannot help but reference herein. After describing the horror that was a slave market Equiano implores “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you – Learned you this from your God” (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 396)? Equiano goes on to appeal to the principal Christ gave to love ones neighbor as oneself. He uses this Biblical allusion to beat the casual observer over the head with vivid images of children ripped apart from their mothers, brothers from brothers, husbands from wives (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 396). And all this to contribute to the observer’s “luxury and lust of gain … sacrificed to [their] avarice” (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 396).
The impact of Equiano, though not as powerful singularly as others is significant in its emotional appeal. Because it was of no benefit to preach to the abolitionist choir, Equiano sought, as many others, to appeal to the great mass of apathetic citizenry, who had no time or inclination to ponder such things, nor direct experience of the horrors of slave trading. Eventually, Equiano, and others like him persuaded this great nation to go to war with itself over the final resolution of this tragedy. Indeed the impact of this one piece of literature may not be significant on its own merit, but it was a vital bucket of water in the eventual tidal wave of sentiment that crashed into the edifice of that despicable practice, crushing it into oblivion.
Arguably no other person in human history has so influenced human governments than Thomas Jefferson. Although not holding to a particular denomination of Christian belief, he was a very firm believer in the Creator and the Creator’s plan for human interaction. Jefferson drew heavily upon the writings of the 17th century, British philosopher John Locke in applying the theory of natural rights to the establishment of a government. Where Winthrop relies on the Bible to make his case, Jefferson appeals to “Nature’s God” to make his (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 377). In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson makes the claim that the British crown has systematically violated the natural rights of the colonists, that it is necessary to “dissolve the political bands” between the two, and that natural law dictates the “right of the people to alter or abolish” the government that “becomes destructive” to the ends of securing natural rights (Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. 376, 377).
Jefferson’s practical application of natural law changed the entire course of human history. Without the moral foundation for the War for Independence detailed in the Declaration of Independence, this world could very well still be largely controlled by despots, strongmen, oligarchies, and the like. While there are still many, many peoples in the world under the yoke of oppressive governments, the writings of Jefferson, founded upon Divine precepts, give not just hope, but a moral impetus to cast off their own shackles.
Can it Be Redeemed?
Many great and wonderful advances in the interrelationships between human beings can be directly attributed to the Christians seeking to redeem the world and install a model heaven on earth. The unfortunate reality, in this author’s opinion, is that humanity is by nature corrupt, power-hungry, and self-serving. The founders of this country recognized this as evidenced in the checks upon governmental power displayed in the founding documents. That said, it is not a condemnation on the attempts made to advance mutual tolerance, respect, and the betterment of the human condition. But the true believer must always be aware of the natural propensity for people to pervert good faith efforts into self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement.
Merriam-Webster. "Politics." 2010. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 17 November 2010 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politics>.
Perkins, George, and Barbara Perkins, eds. The American Tradition in Literature. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009.
The New American Standard Bible. The Lockman Foundation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.