The united States Constitution of 1787 is believed by many in the American Union to be based on Christian principles. John Adams’s quote, ‘Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other’ (Wikiquote), is a favorite proof text of theirs. To the extent that the sinful tendencies of man are acknowledged in the provisions of this writ, it is a true saying. But insofar as one sin or a set of sins are pitted against other sins to bring about good for the commonwealth by federal officials, it is in sooth no Christian document.
Þe Holy Apostle teaches us, ‘Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21 KJV). But James Madison, the father of the Constitution, gainsays him in Federalist No. 51: Let ‘ambition . . . counteract ambition’ (Calhoon, Evangelicals and Conservatives, p. 85). That is, use evil to overcome evil.
By thus bestirring a strong highmindedness within those in government, we see the real quickening force behind the u. S. Constitution and other charters like it: self-love. Yet Christians are taught over and over again to reject self-love. St Maximus the Confessor (+662) names it as the ‘mother of all vices’ (Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, p. 95). Thunberg continues, new-wording St Maximus, ‘The life of vice is characterized by a continual disintegration . . . philautía [i.e., self-love--W.G.] generates a multitude of passions . . . and thus dividing the unity of human nature into thousands of fragments. . . . The vices cause these divisions . . . also between him and his neighbors, since all men participate in the same nature and are called to a unity guided by this principle and aim’ (p. 95).
Simple disagreements among men are not the only fruits of these divisions. St Maximus teaches further, says Thunberg, that by embracing self-love, which necessarily involves a flight from God, man will raise a ‘tyranny against his neighbor’ (pgs. 56-8). Thus, the very thing the u. S. Constitution was written to guard against is its natural outcome because of its unchristian handling of man’s passions.
Self-interest, which is another name for self-love, the guiding moral principle in Western governlore and geldlore since the days of feudalism, therefore, cannot be the foundation for a folk or their government. For self-interest and the vices springing from it yield only disintegration and destruction, not better union, peace, justice, and all the other goals of the u. S. Constitution’s Preamble or of any other virtuous people.
This is one kind of constitution, the constitution founded on self-love, and it is not Christian. The second kind, the truly Christian constitution, is one founded on love. ‘It is impossible to build a life based on wickedness and hatred, for they are the principles of destruction,’ Archbishop Averky Taushev (+1976) says. ‘ . . . love is the only creative force in life; it is the source, the root, the well-spring of all creation. The only reason for the creation of the world and man by God the Creator is His love . . . . This love ennobles our entire life; it creates and inspires all that is truly great, truly beautiful. Family life, society, and government are grounded in this love. In short, love is the vivifying, fundamental life-giver of the world. This is fully logical, for love is from God, and God Himself is love’ (Struggle for Virtue, pgs. 32-3). ‘This mutual love [among Christians--W.G.] is a distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. Therefore, where there is no love, there is no Christianity’ (p. 32).
This is quite an upbraiding in itself, but Archbishop Averky shows further the incompatibility between Western, Madisonian constitutions that kindle the fires of self-love in man (which he names ‘egoism’ below) and Christianity: ‘The teachings of Christ are all directed against egoism. The task of the Christian faith is to destroy all manifestations of egoism in a person, and thus to eradicate egoism itself, and in its stead to implant true spiritual Gospel love which excludes any egoism’ (pgs. 56-7).
Rather than breaking apart, love upbuilds. Thunberg writes, ‘Maximus . . . stress[es] the unifying function of charity itself’ (Man and the Cosmos, p. 96). St Maximus says in Centuries on Charity IV:37, ‘Be no self-pleaser and you will not hate your brother; be no self-lover and you will love God’ (Man and the Cosmos, p. 96)
Therefore, instead of relying on an elaborate system of checks and balances as in Western constitutions of distrust to bring about justice for the people in a commonwealth and their various interests (i.e., allowing each to have what is due him), love is the guardian against injustice. St Maximus teaches, quoth Thunberg, ‘God is by nature good and detached, and He manifests these two attributes in loving all men alike.’ Man, when he is free from self-love and its attendant vices, also loves all oðer men alike, manifests perfect ‘balance and equilibrium’ in all his actions toward others (pgs. 99-100, quotes at 99).
The proper bulwark for protecting against favoritism and other governmental abuses is thus an inward virtue, residing in man’s ghost, and not an outward arrangement of counterbalancing branches and levels of government.
It is for such reasons that governments in Orthodox Christian countries are less sharply defined than those in the post-Schism, Protestant and Catholic West - often mirroring the family, with elders and a father-king in places of authority. For in the West outward, neatly arranged, overly rational systems have taken the place of the fulness of the inner life of the Kingdom of God bestowed by the Holy Ghost, which the Western nations lost when they sundered themselves from the Orthodox Church. This should not take anyone aback, for where the Holy Ghost dwelleth, there love and all the other virtues abound, and the law of man and his cleverness and his jinnies and pulleys and chains and levers to forhold man’s use of power are not needed (Rom. 14:17, II Cor. 3:17, Gal. 5:22-3).
Þe South, as she often does, finds herself in tension between the errors of the schismatic West and þe truth of the Orthodox Church: on the one hand, very often overthoughtsome toward outward arrangements of government power (Calhoon, p. 192), that is, leaning toward mistrust, and on the other, always retaining and stressing the need for a familial tone and structure among her folk as a whole (pgs. 193-4), which implies the Christian virtues of love and trust.
There are then two choices for the South. She may follow the unchristian, Western tradition and have a constitution of mistrust which leads to division and strife: ‘free government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence’ (Jefferson, ‘Kentucky Resolutions’). Or she may follow the Orthodox Tradition and have a constitution based on trust, which brings about wholeness. For trust, Father Pavel Florensky tells us, gives birth to faith (Hosking, ‘Foreward’, in Pyman, Pavel Florensky, p. xvii), the prerequisite to love.
‘Tertium non datur! [There is no third option.],’ cries Archbishop Averky. ‘Either life will be renewed by Gospel love or we will see the catastrophic ruin of humanity to which its ever-increasing malignity and hatred are leading it’ (Struggle for Virtue, p. 54). American constitutional theory is powerless to stop that descent and will only hasten it, for it seeks the cure for sinfulness by increasing self-love, the very cause of sin itself. Let St Maximus the Confessor warn us once more about using ‘vice to counteract vice’, about stirring up self-love, if we would see good days for ourselves and our afterkin:
Thus the immense and innumerable host of passions invades men’s life. Their life becomes in this way deplorable. For the human beings honor the very cause of the destruction of their existence and pursue themselves, without knowing it, the cause of their corruption. The unity of human nature falls into a thousand pieces, and human beings, like beasts, devour their own nature. In fact, in trying to obtain pleasure and avoid pain, instigated by self-love, man invents multiple and innumerable forms of corrupted passions. If, for example, on account of pleasure, one cultivates self-love, one awakes in oneself . . . pride, vanity, self-conceit, . . . TYRANNY . . . (Thunberg, p. 58, all emphasis added).
Adams, John. ‘Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts’. Wikiquote. Posted 8 April 2015. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Adams. Accessed 13 April 2015.
Calhoon, Robert M. Evangelicals & Conservatives in the Early South, 1740-1861. Columbia, S. Carolina: U. of S. Carolina Press, 1988.
The Holy Bible. King James Version. Nashville, Tn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1972.
Hosking, Geoffrey. ‘Foreward’, in Pyman, Avril. Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius, the Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia’s Unknown da Vinci. New York, Ny.: Continuum, 2010.
Jefferson, Thomas. ‘The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798’. Wikisource. Posted 3 Nov. 2010. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Kentucky_Resolutions_of_1798. Accessed 13 April 2015.
Taushev, Archbishop Averky. The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society. Jordanville, Ny.: Holy Trinity Publications, 2014.
Thunberg, Lars. Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St Maximus the Confessor. Crestwood, Ny.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.