Sacred Texts

It is an important and firmly established fact that many important people of the times leading up to the founding of the United States of America were faithful Christians. From the settlers of the Virginia colony to the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, up through the time of the American revolution, people of different Christian sects were involved at every step. Throughout American history people have used sacred scripture for inspiration and guidance in their own personal lives and in building our society and nation.

And so, we will occasionally quote from historically sacred scriptures in order to illustrate points regarding fundamental principles related to the world of mankind, the nature of the human spirit, natural law, and American ideals. Spiritual teachings continue to be an integral part of our society and a pithy statement quoted from a well-recognized saying is often the best way to summarize an idea.

The Christian Bible and its Hebrew framework have been an undeniably important part of the evolution of all of modern Western civilization. The Hebrew book of the law, the Torah, which constitutes the foundation of the Bible, comes down to us from a very early time in the development of western culture when society was first growing out of the relative chaos of nomadic barbarism and establishing a civilization based upon a codified legal structure. The balance of the Old Testament is illustrative of that culture’s growth and various struggles with their spirituality and their relationship both with outside forces and with the legal authority of their own society. And the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament culminate in the recognition that the fundamental point of the codified legal authority for society can be summarized in the compassionate teaching that we know as the “Law of Love.”

And so the Hebrew / Christian sacred text that we know of as the Bible is a summary of the growth of a society and its spiritual core from primitive roots, through the establishment of the rule of law, and into the recognition of spiritual principles as the basis for our attitudes about Life and thoughts and actions toward each other.

It must be recognized, however, that nearly every scriptural reference is open to multiple disparate interpretations, and that the history of America contains the influence of numerous and often conflicting religious sects founded upon these sometimes conflicting readings of the same texts. So, here on this page we will attempt to at least introduce a perspective on the question of what texts are actually sacred to the foundation of America, our society, and our government.

America’s legal foundation

It is just as important to note that, while many individual people in America’s history received comfort from and derived wisdom and inspiration from their personal interpretations of Christian scriptures, the founding legal document of the government of the United States — the Constitution of the United States of America — is entirely secular in its nature, form, and content. Even in its original form, before the addition of the first amendment with its prohibition against the establishment of religion, the Constitution expressly prohibits anyone in any office of public trust from being required to adhere to any religious doctrine (Article VI, paragraph 3.) This is because the Founding Fathers recognized that the establishment of a secular government was the only way to guarantee actual freedom of religious thought in particular and individual thought in general for the individual citizens of the nation.

The thoughts and feelings held by certain individuals when the founding principles of the United States were established may have been considered to be “Christian” by those individuals, because that was their own personal perspective on philosophy and life. But the nation itself, and especially its government, was held completely free from adherence to any particular religious doctrine of any kind, as explicitly written into law by those who founded it:

As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Article 11, Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the U.S. and Tripoli,
Written under President George Washington,
ratified by unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate,
and signed by President John Adams, 1789.

Over the centuries since its founding, our country has derived great benefit from certain Christian traditions, especially with regard to teachings of hope and charity and the creation and support of charitable institutions such as hospitals and centers of assistance for the disadvantaged. But, as far as the framework of our government and society is concerned, the United States has only ever been a “Christian nation” in the sense of the religious affiliation of a majority of its citizens. The organization of our union into a democratic republic as a representative government of and by the people actually derives more from the ancient “pagan” Greeks and Romans, and even from the Native American tribal governments, such as the Iroquois Confederacy and others, than it does from the historical Kings and Judges of the Old Testament or the moral teachings and dictates of Jesus and the apostles.

Nowhere in the Bible, in either the old or new testament, is there even any mention of, let alone support for the concept of a representative democracy. The governmental forms described by and promoted in the Hebrew law and Biblical books of history were either kingships or rule by “Judges,” with each ruler over the country either appointed by edict or coming into their position by inheritance.

The earliest roots of the republican system of government in Western Civilization come down to us from the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece. And it could be said that the most “sacred” of texts from ancient times that is in direct lineage to the events and decisions that lead to the founding of the government of the United States is Plato’s Republic, which contains a comprehensive rational discussion and analysis comparing and contrasting a number of governmental forms that were in existence at the time. Now, neither the Athenian republic nor Plato’s treatise by that name provide exact models for our modern government, but the importance of the concept of rational discussion for the purpose of establishing a government that promotes the best interest of the governed can hardly be emphasized enough, and that concept comes to us directly from the Greeks of Plato’s time.

So, while selections and interpretations of Biblical scripture have certainly been regarded as sacred by many people in America’s history and have provided much inspiration, if we are to look for those texts that are to be venerated as the actual foundations of our constitutional republic, we must broaden our horizons and understand the evolution of political ideals as they have come down to us through the ages from a variety of sources through a number of different cultures.

Sacred texts
    … and America’s legal system

Of supreme importance in American culture is the concept that our nation is founded upon the rule of law. And the Biblical “Ten Commandments” is occasionally cited as the ultimate foundation of modern law.

It is true that the history of Jewish law recorded in the Torah shows us an important early step in humanity’s transition from nomadic culture and rule by brute force of authority to a civilized society. This principle of rule by law eventually took hold in Europe and, as it did, the Bible was right there as an important example of the codified legal guidelines for a society. But if we hold our current system of justice and civil order to be sacred to us, we must also recognize that the sacred texts of its beginnings have a history that is much more rich than having been derived from a single source.

Among the earliest beginnings of codified law in Western Civilization stands the Code of Hammurabi of ancient Babylon, which, unlike the Hebrew Torah, or any Biblical text for that matter, we have a well-preserved copy of that dates from near the time of its origin and first use. The Babylonian Code is a structured set of legal guidelines for nearly every aspect of an early organized society. About one half of it deals with contract law. In this aspect, it performs such functions as establishing wages for various kinds of workers and defining legal liability in the case of the collapse of a structure or damage to property left in the care of another. It goes on to define various punishments, ranging from monetary fines to death, for various crimes; and it describes means of determining guilt by use of witnesses or circumstantial evidence, as available to each case. This Babylonian Code contains one of the earliest examples of a central idea that is sacred to our modern legal system: the concept that guilt must be proven by evidence.

The Code of Hammurabi and other similar texts from various cultures of the region, such as the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Laws of Eshnunna, date from 1750 to 2000 BC, or almost half a millennium before the traditional date given as the recording of the “Law of Moses” in the Hebrew scriptures. They all have definite similarities and are from the same general region, and so it is very likely that each successive code, and especially the later versions such as the Hebrew Torah, were derived at least in part from the earlier codes.

But, as important as these early scriptures are to the foundation of a civilized legal structure, they all still represent the establishment of law by edict of the ruling authority. For those principles that we hold as especially sacred to America’s foundation: the establishment of a government of and by the people, rule by reason, and the concept that the government exists as a servant of the governed citizens, we need to recognize the further evolution of legal thought in Europe, and especially the development of English common law and the evolution of rule by parliamentary representation. And in this light, we certainly ought to consider such documents as the English Magna Carta as among the sacred scriptures relative to America’s foundation with at least as much reverence as any of the other, more ancient texts.

Spiritual Inspiration

What is the real source of our sensibilities? our wisdom? our sense of ethics? our spiritual inspiration? Can the fullness of these things even be contained in a text, or is there something else?

It has been said that the Bible can be used to support just about any action — it’s just a matter of selecting the right passage and using an interpretation that suits the purpose. And this certainly is true regarding a great many issues. One often quoted example is the historical American practice of slavery. On the one hand, Christian teachings of compassion and brotherhood were cited as the basis for the abolitionist movement and its demand for the freeing of the slaves. But on the other hand, every major aspect of the practice of slavery, from the purchasing of human beings from other human beings in Africa, to keeping them and their offspring in bondage for generation after generation, is not only condoned by, but is actively promoted by certain specific commandments which are recorded by the Biblical authors as having come directly from “God.”

By now, our entire society has evolved beyond such barbaric practices. And so, we must all recognize that any text, no matter how widely acknowledged certain parts of it may be for their inspirational quality, must be interpreted in the context of each individual reader’s own sensibilities and with the understanding that the physical author of it, the holder of the pen by which it was written, was indeed a human being, and had all the potential flaws of character and understanding that is implied by that situation. And so, the sensibilities of the reader really ought to be more finely tuned than is possible from just reading the dead letter of the scripture.

Christians universally recognize this principle for reading and interpreting any text as “guidance by the Holy Spirit.” Or some people refer to it as “following their Heart” or finding their “inner Light and Wisdom.”

But whatever term we use to refer to the voice of our conscience, the converse is also true: It is often helpful and sometimes important to supplement our own contemplation by seeking out passages in literature that inspire our thoughts and feelings onward to a greater appreciation of Life. So, we will occasionally quote various passages of spiritual literature in our presentations of ideals and explorations of the potential of the human spirit. And since the majority of American citizens claim affiliation with the Christian religion and are familiar with its teachings, often our citations will be from Christian texts.

But we must also recognize that the same source of wisdom that provides the voice for each individual’s conscience that must be used to interpret our favorite religious scripture has also infused other literature — religious and otherwise, through its various authors, with verities that can help guide our exploration of Life. And so, we may also quote with some reverence from the writings and sayings of Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Lao Tsu, Gautama the Buddha, and even Samuel Clements, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Henry David Thoreau and others, as the occasion calls for.

If this page has raised more questions than it has answered about our view of America’s relationship to “sacred scripture” …

“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal and natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others” (Robert A Rutland, The Papers of George Mason, Vol 3, p. 1071, 1119 [footnote].