Did the Scottish Enlightenment as portrayed by John Locke play the primary role in our US Constitution or were there other more religious forces also at work? Why didn’t our Founding Fathers make more overt references to their Calvinist foundations for the American Republic? Some have argued that the dual source of “natural law” is “the law of nature and of nature’s God.” This is illogical, since “natural law” cannot logically be its own source (“the law of nature…”), unless nature is itself eternal (self-existing) and so not derived from an a priori reality. As such, I would contend that “the law of nature and of nature’s God” is the source not of natural law but of our constitutional law. The Declaration of Independence, after all, concerns itself with both the unalienable rights and the limited governance of free men as legal and moral justification for national independence. It is not a theoretical statement about natural law.
The comment that the men in colleges of the time read and drew upon the philosophers who were dedicated to a non-theocratic regime does not do justice to the historically substantiated relevance of Calvinist theology in the colonial American experience. It is true that the learned men of the founding generation had left behind the witch trials, but it is not correct that they had forgotten the Reformed Christianity (and also the theocratic example of Calvin’s Geneva) that had been the intellectual basis for the Rights of Man. Calvin’s influence on Locke is demonstrable and would have been recognized by the learned men of the time.
It is true that the Founders never really considered an overt theocracy. The reason is not that most of them embraced some sort of foggy headed deism but because they saw the Biblical character of the new nation as so intrinsic to their Declaration and their Constitution as to deny the necessity of any overt Geneva style governance in keeping most of their fellow Americans in line. For them, the very possibility of self-governance
(necessary for there to be limited government) implied a culture and a polity already infused with the wisdom of the Old Testament. Like Old Testament Judges, theocrats are needed when the people fall astray, as Calvin and his followers had viewed the rampant Popery among the ill informed of their time. The Founders saw no such necessity, for the hundred and fifty years of colonial life before had demonstrated to them the American capacity for self-governance. The fact that the Founders never pursued an overt theocratic regime does not imply some sort of learned embrace of philosophical modernism, so much as an acknowledgment that the Reformed Christianity that started with Calvin and Luther in fact had succeeded in shaping the character of the American colonies, thus justifying the political act of declaring independence from the Crown.
Michael Sean Erickson is a political consultant, film producer, an essayist, an Anglican Catholic Priest, a stage actor, and a husband, He is also the author of The Lost Sombrero, Beautiful Catrina, and Dream Time. Originally from San Jose, California, he had lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, before moving more recently to Los Angeles with his beautiful wife, Sharon, and their Shih Tzu, Shansi.