Barack Obama has done much to spark a renewed emphasis on the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. This was not his intention but has occurred as a reaction to his policies that have expanded the federal government beyond constitutional limitations and which deviate from the vision of the Founding Fathers.
Here is one interesting way in which Obama is different from the Founding Fathers: rather than serve as a foundation for his politics, Obama’s faith grows out of his politics. With gargantuan laws such as ObamaCare and an exploding national debt at the center of political dialogue, the interrelation between religious faith and constitutional government is not something that commands much discussion.
But it should. Without a foundational faith in God, the Founding Fathers would not have created the Constitution in the way that they did.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787, they brought with them differing perspectives about a wide range of political issues, but all viewed God as the foundational source of individual liberty.
To the delegates, the centrality of God was an immutable fact of life. They believed, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, that the “sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased by mortal power.”
As a matter of first principle, the delegates believed that the Declaration of Independence says what it means and means what it says: individuals are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Government exists to protect these God-given freedoms and is, in fact, a creation of the people.
This basic premise – that individuals are endowed by God with liberty but that government is not similarly endowed with power – has profound implications. Rather than an omnipotent government which grants privileges to the people as it deems appropriate, the American revolutionaries believed that government only had so much authority as the people saw fit to delegate to it under a written constitution. According to James Madison, this “revolution in the practice of the world, may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history.”
For the Founders, government had no inherent value, and was entitled to wield no authority beyond that authority delegated to it by the people; it thus had to be limited to its delegated functions, lest it infringe upon the people’s God-given authority. Limited government was part and parcel of the Founders’ worldview.
For his part, Obama has criticized those Americans who “cling” to religion, yet he has also projected himself as a man of Christian faith from the very beginning of his national political career, telling the 2004 Democratic National Convention that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states” and citing pastor Jeremiah Wright as his spiritual inspiration.
At the same time, faith does not play a central part of Obama’s political outlook. For example, Obama has frequently cited “inalienable rights” without acknowledging the role of the “Creator,” including omitting mention of the Creator when reciting the Declaration of Independence on more than one occasion. His 2011 Thanksgiving Address made no mention of God at all.
This is interesting because, by the time Obama embraced Christianity at the church of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he had already formed a mature left-of-center political outlook dedicated to achieving “redistributive change.” As he detailed in his autobiography Dreams From My Father, Obama grew up as a secular humanist whose influences ranged from the political left (his mother) to the far political left (the Marxist professors he gravitated to at Occidental College and the socialist conferences he attended at Columbia University). One of the things that drew Obama to Wright’s church was its emphasis on social justice and political activism. As a community organizer interested in mobilizing people to support his left-of-center political causes, Obama was magnetically drawn to Jeremiah Wright and his sizable congregation.
Unlike the Founding Fathers, Obama’s political philosophy is not something that grows out of his religious faith; rather, his religious faith buttresses his pre-existing collectivist vision.
This helps provide the context for Obama’s stated view that “my individual salvation is not going to come about without a collective salvation for the country.” The notion of collective salvation is foreign to traditional Christian thought, but Obama is not really talking about a collective religious salvation or his personal salvation. Instead, he is championing a collective political salvation, a national utopia in which enlightened political leaders, like himself, bring about, through the coercive power of government, the “redistributive change” that he craves. This is his true foundational faith.
For the Founding Fathers, their foundational faith in God-given liberty predisposed them to place limitations on government. For Obama, the supplementary role that faith plays in his political outlook serves to justify the expansion of government.
This may not explain all of the differences between the principles of the Founding Fathers and the governing ethos of Obama, but it does help to explain why Founders and Obama part company when it comes to limitations on government.
Ron DeSantis is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a former federal prosecutor and the author of Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama (2011).
Publication date: December 12, 2011