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About the Constitution, divinity, and Mennonites

The latest edition of The Ben and Joel Podcast is, well, kind of weird. In it, we interview Larry Arnn about his new book, "The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It." Arnn's main point is that the Declaration and the Constitution don't have opposing philosophical foundations—despite what some scholars say—but I got hung up on the "divine and natural part" and you can hear so in the podcast.

The word "God" appears in Arnn's text 64 times. He references the Declaration's appeal to "the laws of nature and of nature's God" 21 times. And so, for me, the book reads much like a theological declaration as much—or more—as it is a work of history or political science. Is there room for a secular-minded person in a "divine" understanding of government? What's wrong with believing the Founders were a group of smart men—but also human and imperfect, people whose work was great but still leaves room for improvement? You can hear Arnn's answers in the podcast.

You can also hear him, jokingly, refer to me as a "defector" from the principles of my alma mater, Tabor College. And, well, guilty as charged. Tabor is a largely conservative, evangelical Christian college. I fit none of those descriptions anymore.

But after we finished recording, as I continued to digest Arnn's work and the podcast, I realized I'd still find his constant invocation of the divine troubling, even if I were not a "defector."

The Mennonites I grew up around had an interesting history. They were pacifists, believing that the example of Jesus precluded them from taking up arms. Because of that theology, the fled as a group from Germany, their original home, to Russia. And then from Russia, in the late 1800s, to Kansas, where I grew up.

The mix of theology and experience—recent enough that churches in my hometown were still worshipping in a Russian-inflected version of German into the 1950s—led many of the Mennonites to be skeptical of nationalism, in particular, but certainly any brand of patriotism that seemed to claim God on its side. As Christians, the felt duty-bound to be respectful of the authority of government--but I'm dubious they'd spend much time reflecting on the "divine" foundations of man-made government. Even when that argument is made, as Arnn does, in the service of limited government.

The problem with invoking "divinity" as the source of a form of government is that it really ends the discussion. You can't argue with God, usually. But there are plenty of arguments to be had, as evidenced by our discussion. Arnn seems like a good and pleasant man; I've no wish to quarrel with him! And he's right that the Founders referenced God quite a bit in their discussions; what that proves is that ... they referenced God quite a bit in their discussions. It doesn't mean the Constitution is marked with divinity.


Anonymous said…
Good thoughts again, Joel. I have not heard the podcast, but will when I have more time.

Sounds like a re-writing of history to create an aura of holiness around our founding documents and therefore liable for the same treatment of the Bible as inerrant, divinely inspired, and unalterable; then into objects of worship (idolatry in the worst form).

You have not left your Tabor influences so far behind, for you have picked up on something your theological predecessors would have despised.


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