Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inspired By or Compatible With?

I've heard it said that the concept of separation of powers in America's political system ultimately originates from the doctrine of sin. The argument says that the founding fathers recognized man's sinfulness and so they designed a system that took that into account, whereas European systems seemed anti-Christian in that respect because they often lack a separation of powers.

I think I have a different take on this. Given that most of the founding fathers (and certainly all of the most influential ones in drafting our constitution) were not Christians by most accounts, it seems doubtful they would base such an important aspect of our government on a Christian doctrine. Its also doubtful that such a system was even intended: the constitution gives some checks between legislative and executive branches, but in my studies of history, it seems the legislature was always intended to dominate and the judiciary was never intended to play a part in the balance of power. So the current understanding we have has been the result of some political evolution in our government. The best explanation seems to be that the original system was devised as a reaction to the "tyranny" of British politics from under which the colonies had just escaped and an attempt to create a more populist government that actually functioned. Later political forces created the system we now understand. I see little reason or evidence to indicate that this was based on the Christian doctrine of sin and depravity.

That being said, it is certainly compatible with that doctrine. The system of checks and balances certainly fits to some extent with a Christian understanding of the human condition. But it seems an illogical leap to suggest that means this political institution was inspired by Christian doctrine, especially when historical evidence seems to suggest otherwise. I think there needs to be caution expressed before reading democracy or any western institution into the scriptures or out of the scriptures. They may sometimes be compatible with each other, but this does not mean that they are inspired by one another. Nor does it mean that scriptures teach democracy or support democracy. Remember, they were not written under democracy, and for the most part none of their writers had any democratic experience or knowledge. But their truths are timeless, so we should not be surprised when we find ways to make them compatible with or apply them to our culture or any culture. This does not mean this culture is what scripture teaches. Culture can change, and the application of the Bible will adapt.


  1. Very interesting position you have developed! I think an argument can also be put forward that states that the British parliamentary system, historically, confirms to Christianity through ‘divine right’ and even through in theory the (a lot of powers) rest with the crown there are ‘check-and-balances’ within the parliamentary system of governess, and the crown nowadays has become symbolic. Even so, I think it still a case of them being “compatible” with one another, rather than one “inspiring” the other or both “inspiring” each other (I liked how you worded it, as well); as such the situation is that religion and politics/governance are used as a convenience for each other such as to justify or/and support each other.

  2. From now on I post by the nickname "issues-issues": RE anonymous comment.


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