The BLOG: Faith and Law

Is religion or law our nation’s shared narrative?

All cultures require a common narrative of identity in order to maintain viability. Religious narratives often serve this purpose well. Religious narratives bind people together in political community. But “we the people of the United States of America” are not bound by a common religious narrative. Our national motto, e pluribus unum, reflects our commitment to both pluralism and unity. Religious pluralism (reflected in both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment) precludes a common religious narrative. Without the possibility of a shared religious narrative, what is it that unites our culture?

Law, not religion, is our shared narrative. This explains what I meant in my last post by describing law is our “national religion.” Our framers were deeply indebted to the Western tradition which is itself deeply indebted to Judeo-Christian tradition. But it is a mistake, and a significant one, to argue that our framers established a Christian nation. It is a mistake no less severe to argue that the framers established a secular nation without faith and opposed to religious belief.

Our framers placed their faith in law. “Law should govern,” as Aristotle explained in his “Politics.” “In America,” Thomas Paine asserted, “the law is king.” We are a people of many religious beliefs united by our faith in the rule of law. Thus, public officials swear to uphold the constitution and laws of the United States rather than any other religious creed.

Some men and women of faith find the last paragraph problematic. Ours is a Christian nation, they argue, reflecting the Christian worldview of those who founded the colonies. As a professor at a Christian law school, I am sympathetic to those who defend the argument. They are understandably frustrated by what they perceive to be ever-increasing attacks on their faith in the public square. Public prayer in schools is forbidden. Reference to the Christian worldview excluded. Human life is redefined by the courts. Marriage is too. The fundamental transformation of American is thought to be an intentional departure from a shared Christian heritage.

Proponents of this view ought not be summarily dismissed. Their viewpoint is informed by many important facts. For example, Captain John Smith’s papers reflect the fact that one of the first structures built at the Jamestown settlement was a Christian church. Many colonists, in fact, fled Europe in order to secure for themselves the freedom to build Christian communities. A Christian worldview runs throughout many of the most important documents associated with our nation’s founding: John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government” is replete with references to Christian doctrine; the Declaration of Independence grounds equality and natural rights upon the endowments of the Creator, Nature’s God; and, almost a century after the nation’s founding, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the first thing that caught his attention about the United States was “the religious aspect of the country.” “Christianity, therefore, reigns without obstacle, by universal consent,” according to Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Denying a relationship between Christianity and the founding of our nation ignores these, and many other, historical facts.

Although sympathetic, I must nevertheless dissent from the view that ours is a Christian nation. We are a nation of laws applying equally to men and women without regard to their personal religious convictions. Ours is not a Christian nation – but, instead, a nation founded by Christians (and others) committed to the rule of law. This commitment to the rule of law entails religious freedom (as will be discussed in later posts) which must be preserved for the rule of law to maintain its vitality.

One of the great dangers implicit in the Christian nation argument is its potential to destroy national unity and religious freedom at the same time. Many people are (rightly) fearful of political narratives which co-opt religious narratives. The events of the past week demonstrate why this is so. Religious convictions combined with political aspirations are capable of producing otherwise inexplicable horrors. ISIS is building a religious community — a new caliphate. And, clearly, ISIS intends to displace the rule of law with a rule of faithfulness. Infidels will be destroyed. What else can explain suicide vests, mass shootings, immolations, and beheadings?

Men and women of faith in the United States must acknowledge the reality that many are skeptical of the unification of rules of faith and rules of law. The framers shared this skepticism. “Christianity is the companion of liberty in all its conflicts,” wrote Tocqueville. But liberty is secured, in our nation, by due process of law.

This blog is dedicated to examining the relationship between law and faith. This is a fruitful relationship with many meaningful points of intersection, as I will explore in future posts. But the point of this post is simply to observe that that men and women of faith, particularly Christians, must not make the mistake of reducing American law to religious doctrine.

Nor should we lose our faith in the rule of law merely because there are those who abuse it. Reducing law to a particular religious belief obscures the fact that those who are bent upon fundamentally transforming America are transforming law, not faith. They are abusing or neglecting their oath of office – and we should be much more concerned about their neglect of legal duty than their other religious commitments. Faith and law have much to say to one another – and danger emerges whenever one stops listening (or the other is silenced).

Finally, there is great danger in any pluralistic society of falling into the pit of post-modernity wherein the lions deconstruct, dismantle, and devour all narratives of identity. Our nation will only endure so long as we maintain our faith in ability of law to shut the mouths of these lions. Time will tell whether we remain faithful.

Rob McFarland

Rob McFarland

Robert L. McFarland is Associate Dean of External Affairs and Associate Professor of Law at Faulkner University’s Jones School of Law. NBPPluralism