Unreasonable Argument: Sometimes What Everyone Knows Just Isn’t So

Nowhere in the Bible do we find representative democracy, divided government with a system of checks and balances or a Bill of Rights that protects the civil liberties of the people – all features of our modern government.

Over the weekend, a group of atheists, humanists, agnostics and others held a “Reason Rally” in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Thousands of people attended the event, which was designed in part to express support for secular government and separation of church and state. This is an audience we want to reach, so Americans United had an informational table at the rally.

I was there for a few hours on Saturday morning and enjoyed chatting with the many people who came by AU’s booth to pick up literature, sign up for our action alerts and ask questions. It was a typical D.C. early June day – hot and humid, but spirits were high and I felt the energy of the crowd.

One fellow who stopped by, however, wasn’t enthusiastic about the event.

After explaining that he wasn’t with “these people,” the man asked me how I could be for separation of church and state when it’s so clear that our country is based on “biblical principles.”

I politely explained to him that the United States is not founded on biblical principles. I told him that the Constitution is a secular document with no references to Christianity, Jesus Christ or even God.

He dismissed all of this by saying, “But everyone knows it was.”

So this was his argument in a nutshell: Nothing in the text of the Constitution supports my point of view, but everybody knows I’m right anyway!

A lot of people may indeed believe that the Constitution is based on biblical principles, but that doesn’t make it so. Let’s consider governance, for example. The Old Testament speaks of powerful kings and despots. In the New Testament, we read accounts of Jesus’ conflict with the Roman government – an autocratic state run by a powerful emperor.

Nowhere in the Bible do we find representative democracy, divided government with a system of checks and balances or a Bill of Rights that protects the civil liberties of the people – all features of our modern government. This is not surprising, as the Bible was not written to be a manual for governing.

When I pressed the man to name one of the biblical principles that “everyone knows” is the basis of our government, he replied that it’s illegal to commit murder. I explained to him that the prohibition against murder was around long before there was a Bible, but he wasn’t persuaded. He thanked me for my time and moved on. (Unfortunately, he declined a copy of this pamphlet, which I offered him.)

I’ve encountered folks like this before. They are so certain that the U.S. government is based on biblical principles because they heard a TV preacher or a politician say it. They haven’t thought much beyond that – and the proof of this is in the fact that they can’t answer the next question: “OK, so what exactly are those principles? Can you name even one?”

People obviously feel strongly about these issues, but feelings aren’t evidence. If you want to convince me that separation of church and state is a mistake because our country was founded on biblical principles, it would be a good idea to be able to cite chapter and verse not from the Bible but from the Constitution, our actual governance document.

Unfortunately for my friend at the Reason Rally and those who think like him, that is an impossible task because the evidence just isn’t there. The text of the document they so claim to revere, the Constitution, doesn’t back them up.

Everyone should know that.