April 4, 2011
"Let it [the Constitution] be taught in schools, seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, enforced in courts of justice. In short, let it become the political religion of the nation." -- Abraham Lincoln
When writing the U.S. Constitution, reliable evidence shows that the Framers relied on their understanding of political teachings, drawing from contemporary influences and past history. However, perhaps of equal importance, was the religious influence on the political writings of their time.
“80% of the political pamphlets written in the 1770s and 1780s were written by ministers and when all references from the political writings of this time period are taken into account, a staggering 34% of references made are to the Bible. In fact, Deuteronomy by itself ranks as the most cited book during this era.” (American Political Thought)
Indeed, there are many parallels, similarities, between Deuteronomy and the U.S. Constitution. Credit for much of how Deuteronomy is explained in this chapter must be given to Daniel J. Elazar, who provides an excellent interpretation of this book of the bible in his essay, Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution: Some Preliminary Reflections.
The term for constitution in ancient Israel is torah, and this word is defined as an important and divine teaching. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses, make up the Torah. The fifth book, Deuteronomy, restates the teachings of the first four books.
The first four books together can be seen as a constitutional document. Genesis explains the historic context or background information, to provide a frame of reference for what follows. In Exodus-Leviticus, there is a preamble; an introduction which explains to the Jewish people the reasons for what they are about to learn, a covenant; the promise made between the Jewish people and God, and fundamental law; in other words, a supreme set of laws. Numbers includes additional fundamental laws that grow out of the experience of the Jewish people.
According to Jewish tradition the Torah was revealed to Moses in 1312 BCE at Mount Sinai.
In the United States, the Constitution is the supreme Law of the Land, meaning that all other laws and judicial decisions are subject to what is written in this document. Therefore, the United States Constitution has higher authority than all other laws in the nation, including statutes and laws passed by Congress and state legislatures. Unlike those other laws, it is difficult to change or amend the fundamental law of the Constitution.
The United States Constitution was created in 1787.
The Deuteronomic constitution is a covenant, a decision made between the Jewish people and God, to which both are pledged to follow. This book of the bible provides the reasons for the covenant, why certain conditions must be followed, the requirement that people pledge to each other their willingness to follow this covenant, how the agreement will be enforced or law breakers punished, and the blessings or curses that will follow based on Jewish loyalty or disloyalty to the teaching.
The Jewish people freely decide to consider, agree to, and follow the covenant. They freely agree to renew their pledge to the covenant every seven years. This is very different from being told they must follow a law to which they haven't considered or been given any choice about following. The process of covenanting involves more than recognizing and obeying a contract; it involves mutual faith and love among those involved. Through their belief and acceptance, the covenant defines them and makes them who they are. To survive, this teaching must be written on the hearts of the followers and in a constitution passed down through each generation.
The U.S. Constitution applies to all the states and to all the people who live every state. The citizens of the United States are bound by a social contract (compact) to each other in which they agree to form a government to guarantee the rights of the members of society. The powers of the national government are limited, limited to only those delegated to it by the Constitution on behalf of the people.
The introduction to the U.S. Constitution, its preamble, says that the people not only establish the constitution, they ordain and establish it. Ordain means to invest with a ministerial function or priestly power. The preamble also provides the reason for creating this law.
In Deuteronomy, it is expected that the people and their rulers know the text and contents of their constitution, this important, divine teaching. To ensure this, Deuteronomy uses repetition. This constitution is not merely a written document but something that is taught to the entire people.
The constitution is presented as necessary to sustain the very life of the Israelites and their claim to the land that God has given them. The statutes and ordinances are presented as complete and permanent and the constitution itself commands the Israelites not to add or diminish them since they are God's commandments, mitzvoth (However, this provision is modified later by another allowing, even commanding, interpretation by the judges and authorities of each generation). The statutes and ordinances are introduced as being those of a great nation and a wise and understanding people, which will be recognized as such by the other peoples of the world.
In the United States, in order to perform the essential tasks of maintaining the nation, citizens must be educated. Matthew Spalding, Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, writes,
“The American Founders argued that knowledge, and in particular civic knowledge, was absolutely crucial to the workings and future of republican government. The primary lesson of civic education was that legitimate government is grounded in the protection of equal natural rights and the consent of the governed. The threat to those rights -from government, among other things, or majority tyranny- was the second and most vital lesson. A knowledge and appreciation of how our institutions of government work -enumerated powers, checks and balances, federalism- was crucial, but they stressed even more the limits of "parchment barriers" and the need for a vigilant, educated citizenry.”
Thomas Jefferson hoped that "the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."
In 1790, James Wilson made his point that, "Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love unless they first become the objects of our knowledge."
An essential component of public education is the development of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for participatory citizenship.
The Israelite constitution, Deuteronomy, does not concentrate power in a single human authority; there are shared powers between keter torah (the Crown of Torah); keter kehunah (the Crown of Priesthood); and keter malkhut (the Crown of Kingship or civil rule), crown meaning power, or ruling authority.
Though the Israelites are given permission to appoint a king, he must be chosen by God and he must be an Israelite, never a foreigner. The covenant of keter malkhut (the Crown of Kingship or civil rule) is not made with the king but is made with the people who are empowered to appoint a king should they choose. The king is limited in his ability to accumulate wealth or to take many wives. There are two reasons for this. One, it was believed having more than one wife was greedy, more problematic is that wives were often used to forge alliances, join powers with a foreign country.
The king is commanded to write out a copy of the whole Book of Deuteronomy, apparently in the presence of the priests and Levites, so that he will have no excuse for not knowing the law.
"And it shall be with him and he shall read therein all the days of his life that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of His Constitution and statutes to do them. That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, that he not turn aside from the commandments to the right or to the left, so that he may prolong his days in the kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.”
According to Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, no person except a “natural born citizen” (citizen at birth) shall be eligible to the office of President. John M. Yinger, Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics, The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, cites St. George Tucker's “Treatise on the Constitution” (1803) as lending evidence to the link between the natural-born citizen clause and foreign influence.
“That provision in the constitution which requires that the president shall be a native-born citizen (unless he were a citizen of the United States when the constitution was adopted,) is a happy means of security against foreign influence, which, wherever it is capable of being exerted, is to be dreaded more than the plague.”
Somewhat resembling a "bill of rights", Deuteronomy specifies the judicial procedures to be followed for those accused of crimes, and defines the legal rights of Israelites and aliens. Civil and criminal matters, family relations, warfare, and citizenship are all considered. A bill of rights is intended to limit the power of those charged with authority, and protects our natural rights. However, in Deuteronomy, Israelites are commanded to behave with justice and fairness in order to be holy. In the Torah, natural rights grow out of the obligations, to maintain a standard of behavior toward other humans created in God’s image, as part of their covenant.
The U.S. Constitution was ratified with the promise that it would include a Bill of Rights. It would not have been accepted as our supreme law, otherwise. The Bill of Rights that was added to the U.S. Constitution was based on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. George Mason refused to sign the U.S. Constitution because he believed it gave too much power to a central government and needed a bill of rights to guarantee individual liberty.
Every seven years, Deuteronomy shall be read to all the men, women, children, and strangers in Israel so “that they may learn, and fear the Lord, and observe to do all the words of this law; and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord, as long as they live in the land.”
In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first federal law governing the western territories—it was stated that, “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
In a July 2009 survey of adult knowledge of the American Revolution and the Founding of the
United States, commissioned by the American Revolution Center, “83 percent of Americans failed a basic test on knowledge of the American Revolution and the principles that have united all Americans.”
▪ More than a third of American adults could not place the American Revolution in the correct century.
▪ In spite of pledging allegiance “to the republic for which it stands,” equal numbers of Americans mistakenly believe that the Constitution established a direct democracy as correctly identify our form of national government as a democratic republic. This basic fact is included on the naturalization exam for immigrants to qualify for U.S. citizenship, and yet more than half of Americans do not know it.
Like Deuteronomy, the U.S. Constitution should be heard, learned, and observed by the American people. It should be written -- on the hearts of the followers, this teaching passed down through each generation. Only in this way, can it hope to survive as long as the Deuteronomic constitution, which has been guiding and defining the Jewish people for over 3000 years.
This excerpted chapter is from a forthcoming book by Nancy Salvato, entitled, “Discussing the Nation’s Founding Documents with our Children”.
“American Political Thought” by Jonathan Mott, Ph.D.
“A Republic If You Can Keep It” by Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
“Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution: Some Preliminary Reflections” by Daniel J. Elazar