The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

What Our Founders Understood About Human Nature

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"ArtIm:

“He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself.”
—Plato’s Republic

The works of C. S. Lewis always seem to be undergoing a renaissance. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has made it to the big screen and was an artistic and financial success. This has been followed by Prince Caspian (2008). While The Chronicles of Narnia get most of the attention, we mustn’t forget Lewis’s Space Trilogy, consisting of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Earth is the “silent planet” where the “bent people” live, that is, bent in character by sin.

Long before Lewis, our nation’s founding fathers understood man’s basic problem. There was the general acknowledgment of human sinfulness, even among those who had been “refined” by education and breeding: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). Most of us don’t want to believe such negative things about people, since we don’t believe such things about ourselves. Today’s materialist climate does not account for sin. There are “environmental” or “systemic” reasons why people do what they do. But sin? God forbid!

Only God knows what evil lurks in the heart of men: “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind” (17:10). This means we must trust God with His assessment of the human condition and follow His way in dealing with it. It’s this biblical realism that leads Paul to write: “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been instructed (1 Tim. 1:8–11).

Most colonists grew up with the New England Primer (1690) which began the study of the alphabet with “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Some might claim that the indictments leveled against the human race as a whole by these pre-moderns should be excused since they were formulated in a pre-scientific age prior to the development of psychiatric theories which tell us “I’m OK—You’re OK.” And even if you’re not, you can always blame your mother, your father, your teacher, or the Little League or cheerleading coach for your disturbed and sensitive condition. If you can’t find fault in any of these, there is always, “My genes made me do it.” There is a genetic cause for nearly every malady today.

Since we have officially adopted materialism as an explanation for everything—Darwin’s supposed “universal acid” that eats through everything—all problems have a this-world solution: drug therapy, gene therapy, a change in environment, all funded and controlled by government.

Our nation’s founders acknowledged the sinfulness of man and took it into account when they developed the system of government that has been the envy of the world. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” wrote James Madison in 1788, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

Alexander Hamilton “remarks upon the ‘folly and wickedness of mankind,’ and declares that he regards ‘human nature as it is, without flattering its virtue or exaggerating its vices.’ Consequently, he believes that ‘men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.’” Hamilton’s “pessimistic view of man is shared by John Jay, the third author of the Federalist, who sees men as governed by ‘the dictates of personal interest’ and who will therefore ‘swerve from good faith and justice.’” Thomas Jefferson astutely observed that “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.” Even with the heady notions of the Enlightenment swirling about, the American Founders never relinquished their fundamental belief in the depravity of man.

Our founders did not believe in the perfectibility of man by any human institution, church and state included. Federalist scholar Gottfried Dietze writes: “This raises the question of whether the contributors to this American classic believe that man can be improved. The answer is in the negative. No millennium is foreseen in which human selfishness would disappear and in which it would be possible to live happily without the restraints of government. All kinds of men, whether poor or rich, whether of common or aristocratic stock, are selfish and always will be.”

We should bear in mind that the founders lived within a Christian context. They knew of barbarism and how “religion” transformed the world. Many of their anti-religious broadsides were leveled against those who abused their authority as religious leaders. Jesus did this as well. He saved His most pointed criticism for the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Even so, we know that the realistic pessimism of our founders did not stop them from creating a system of government that took into account human sinfulness. There are great lessons to be learned from their practical wisdom.

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