The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

What is the Duty of All Nations?

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While Christians are weakening their particular witness in the area of politics by taking a two-kingdom approach, it’s interesting to take a look at a number of our nation’s more secular founders to see what they believed about how God is the fixed point governmental thought. On June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin delivered a stirring speech to those in attendance at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. His words then are no less true today. In fact, they struck a profound prophetic note that serve as a disturbing warning to all who would dismiss the idea that God should govern in the affairs of nations:

All of us who were engaged in the struggle [in the war for independence] must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance? I have lived . . . a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice [Mt. 10:29] is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the Sacred Writings, that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it’ [Ps. 127:1]. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.

Franklin was not known as orthodox in his religious beliefs, but there is no doubt that he understood what made nations great. It wasn’t geography, natural resources, or monetary prosperity. The self-taught candlemaker’s son, author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals, and world traveler knew that the key to national success was the acknowledgment that God establishes empires, and He requires that they be built in a certain way. In practical terms alone, Franklin reasoned that to exclude God in nation building is to discount long-term national success.

George Washington offered similar counsel in his Thanksgiving Proclamation of October 3, 1789, just after approving the language of the First Amendment. The Proclamation stated in unequivocal terms that “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Later in the body of the document, Washington describes God as the “great Lord and Ruler of Nations.”

James Madison put it this way in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785):

Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe; and if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must do it with reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of a particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. 

Franklin, Washington, and Madison understood that without a transcendental sovereign lawgiver there is no basis for good government, legitimate justification for an agreed upon moral order, and, according to Thomas Jefferson in “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), “those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” There is nothing in their writings of these men suggests that there might be other options as some of their contemporaries a continent away proposed.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment planned the rebuilding of society on rational lines. Religion and tradition were seen to have no authority to dictate what the future world should be like. Where they conflicted with human interests they should give way.ay.[1]

Certainly there was no unanimous consensus by these men on religious sentiments, but there was almost unanimous agreement that morality was rooted in religion, even among those like Jefferson who had their squabbles with the church. The Constitution is not a document of law as we generally understand it. It says nothing about what constitutes murder or theft. The Constitution implements whatever moral or amoral worldview is in generally held by the people. At the time of the Constitution’s drafting, Christianity was considered to be the foundation of a sound moral and political order even though debates raged over particular doctrinal beliefs. In his dissenting opinion in McGowan v. Maryland (1961) William O. Douglas stated: 

The institutions of our society are founded on the belief that there is an authority higher than the authority of the State; that there is a moral law which the State is powerless to alter; that the individual possesses rights, conferred by the Creator, which government must respect. The Declaration of Independence stated the now familiar theme: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And the body of the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights enshrined those principles.

If these less than Christian men (Washington may be an exception) understood that “the institutions of our society are founded on the belief that there is an authority higher than the authority of the State,” surely Christians should believe and vote accordingly and quit falling for the notion that the Bible has no role in setting the moral parameters for law and government.


[1] Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 310

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