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Christianity in American Law


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  • Defines blasphemy, theologically and legally.
  • Shows that legal blasphemy is based on
    • respect for law
    • where law is based on Christianity
  • Shows that the U.S. Constitution did not require states to abolish blasphemy laws

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Biblical Law on Blasphemy (selected)

And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death.
Leviticus 24:16

The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
John 10:33

Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and blaspheme dignities. {9} Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a blasphemous accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee. {10} But these blaspheme those things which they know not: but what they know naturally, as brute beasts, in those things they corrupt themselves.
Jude 1:8-10

Infopedia 2.0, "Blasphemy"

in common law, crime of speaking or publishing words that vilify or ridicule God, the Bible, or religious beliefs. It is a misdemeanor, and two reasons formerly underlay its being a crime:
(1) it tended to cause a breach of the peace between the blasphemer and those outraged by his or her words, and
(2) because Christianity was a part of common law, blasphemy tended to undermine the law.
The question is, did the Constitution require the law to be re-created on a non-Christian foundation, or is this result of mere sociological forces (activist atheists prevailing over retreatist Christians in the marketplace of ideas)?
Only the first reason remains, for Christianity is no longer a part of the law. The manner rather than the content of the utterance or publication renders it blasphemous; a statement of opinion, however heretical (see Heresy) to a religion, is not punishable as blasphemy. Thus, scurrility and a resultant tendency to provoke a public disturbance are the criteria for blasphemy, and statutes condemning it are held to be in consonance with the laws that protect freedom of speech and religion. It is still a crime in Great Britain and in most of the U.S., but prosecutions are now rare.


Black's Law Dictionary, 4th ed.

In English Law

Blasphemy is the offense of speaking matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, or the Book of Common Prayer, intended to wound the feelings of mankind or to excite contempt and hatred against the church by law established, or to promote immorality. Sweet.

In American Law

Any oral or written reproach maliciously cast upon God, His name, attributes, or religion. Com. V. Kneeland, 20 Pick. (Mass.) 213; Young V. State, 10 Lea (Tenn.) 165; People V. Ruggles, 8 Johns. (N.Y.) 290, 5 Am.Dec. 335; Updegraph V. Com., 11 Serg. & R. (Pa.) 406.

In general, blasphemy may be described as consisting in speaking evil of the Deity with an impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others from the love and reverence of God.

It is purposely using words concerning God calculated and designed to impair and destroy the reverence, respect, and confidence due to Him as the intelligent creator, governor, and judge of the world. It embraces the idea of detraction, when used towards the Supreme Being, as "calumny" usually carries the same idea when applied to an Individual. It is a willful and malicious attempt to lessen men's reverence of God by denying His existence, or His attributes as an intelligent creator, governor, and judge of men, and to prevent their having confidence in Him as such. Com. V. Kneeland, 20 Pick. (Mass.) 211, 212.

The use of this word is, in modern law, exclusively confined to sacred subjects; but blasphemia and blasphemare were anciently used to signify the reviling by one person of another. Nov.77, c. 1, 1; Spelman.

Every single signer of the Constitution believed that Christianity was the foundation of our nation's law. If people became anti-Christian, they would become lawless, and our freedoms would be lost.
The Moral Basis of Government
indent.gif (90 bytes)This is an unedited reprint of chapter 13 of Clinton Rossiter's The Political Thought of the American Revolution, a revised version of Part III of Seedtime of the Republic.
Importance of Morality and Religion In Government 
indent.gif (90 bytes)Statements from a cross-section of the Founding Fathers.
Piety and Virtue
indent.gif (90 bytes)"without the prevalence of Christian piety and morals, the best republican constitution can never save us from slavery and ruin." -- Debates in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, of the Adoption of the Federal Constitution WEDNESDAY, February 6, 1788. Jonathan Elliot, ed., Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 2, p.170.
 indent.gif (90 bytes)"Piety" has reference to religious faith. Since blasphemy attacks piety, it attacks virtue, and is therefore subversive of free republican government.

Swearing and Revolution

Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, vol. 1

indent.gif (90 bytes)The third commandment once had central attention in church and society; today, its significance has waned greatly for modern man.
indent.gif (90 bytes)Mantagu's informative study gives us a frank statement of the meaning of swearing:
Swearing serves clearly definable social as well as personal purposes. A social purpose? But has not swearing always been socially condemned and proscribed? It has. And that is precisely the point. Because the early forms of swearing were often of a nature regarded as subversive of social and religious institutions, as when the names of the gods were profanely invoked, their use in such a manner was strictly forbidden.[2]
An important point is made here: false swearing is . . . linked with subversion.
indent.gif (90 bytes)There is, first of all, a prohibition only of false swearing or false cursing. It is taking the name of the Lord in vain, or "profanely" (Berkeley Version) that is forbidden. Second, from the Biblical perspective, all false swearing or cursing is profane . . . .   The word profane comes from the Latin pro, before, fanum, temple, i.e., before or outside the temple; profanity is thus all speech, action, and living which is outside God.
indent.gif (90 bytes)Fourth, we can now recognize why, in Montagu's words, "the early forms of swearing were often of a nature regarded as subversive of social and religious institutions."[13] They still are. All swearing is religious, and false swearing represents a subversive drive in society. . . .  Only when we begin to understand the relationship of the oath to the foundations of society, to revolution, and to religion, can we begin to understand the ancient horror of blasphemy.
2. Ashley Montagu, The Anatomy of Swearing (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p.1.
13. Ibid.

In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that America was a Christian nation. It based its conclusion on an exhaustive survey of America's founding charters ("organic law"), court decisions, and statutes. One of the first court decisions it considered was the case of

Updegraph v. The Commonwealth (1824)
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

This was the first case cited in Holy Trinity, and the facts of the case were described in the grand jury's indictment:

Abner Updegraph . . . not having the fear of God before his eyes . . . contriving and intending to scandalize and bring into disrepute and vilify the Christian religion and the scriptures of truth in the presence and hearing of several persons . . . did unlawfully, wickedly and premeditatively, despitefully and blasphemously say. . . : "That the Holy Scriptures were a mere fable: that they were a contradiction, and that although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies." To the great dishonor of Almighty God [and] to the great scandal of the profession of the Christian religion.[7]

Updegraph, indicted under the State law against blasphemy, was found guilty by the jury; that verdict was appealed.

Since the central question revolved around the issue of blasphemy, the court needed to establish a legal definition of that word. It therefore turned to the writings of the foremost legal authority of the day: William Blackstone.

Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws, introduced in 1766, became the law book of the Founding Fathers.[8] (In fact, so strong was its influence in America that Thomas Jefferson once quipped that American lawyers used Blackstone's with the same dedication and reverence that Muslims used the Koran.[9]) It was therefore logical that the court should turn to this source to establish the legal definition of "blasphemy":

Blasphemy against the Almighty is denying His being or Providence or uttering contumelious [insulting] reproaches on our Savior Christ. It is punished at common law by fine and imprisonment, for Christianity is part of the laws of the land.[10]

By the legal definition, Updegraph had clearly violated the law. His attorney, however, argued that his conviction should be overturned for two reasons: (1) Updegraph was a member of a debating association which convened weekly, and what he said had been uttered in the course of an argument on a religious question; (2) that both the State and federal Constitution protected freedom of speech, and that if any State law against blasphemy did exist, the federal Constitution had done away with it; Christianity was no longer part of the law. (Undoubtedly, defense arguments would differ little today.) The supreme court responded:

The jury . . . finds a malicious intention in the speaker to vilify the Christian religion and the Scriptures and this court cannot look beyond the record nor take any notice of the allegation that the words were uttered by the defendant, a member of a debating association which convened weekly for discussion and mutual information. . . . That there is an association in which so serious a subject is treated with so much levity, indecency and scurrility [vulgar and obscene language] . . . I am sorry to hear, for it would prove a nursery of vice, a school of preparation to quality young men for the gallows and young women for the brothel, and there is not a skeptic of decent manners and good morals who would not consider such debating clubs as a common nuisance and disgrace to the city. . . . [I]t was the outpouring of an invective so vulgarly shocking and insulting that the lowest grade of civil authority ought not to be subject to it, but when spoken in a Christian land and to a Christian audience, the highest offence contra bonos mores [against proper standards].[11]

Having rejected the defense argument concerning a debating society, the court concluded by refuting the defense contention that the constitution disregarded Christianity:

[T]he assertion is once more made that Christianity never was received as part of the common law of this Christian land; and it is added that if it was it was virtually repealed by the Constitution of the United States and of this State. . . .

We will first dispose of what is considered the grand objection -- the constitutionality of Christianity -- for, in effect, that is the question. Christianity, general Christianity, is and always has been a part of the common law. . . not Christianity founded on any particular religious tenets; not Christianity with an established church . . . but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men.

Thus this wise legislature framed this great body of laws for a Christian country and Christian people. . . . This is the Christianity of the common law. . . and thus it is irrefragably [undeniably] proved that the laws and institutions of this State are built on the foundation of reverence for Christianity . . . .  In this the Constitution of the United States has made no alteration nor in the great body of the laws which was an incorporation of the common-law doctrine of Christianity.

No free government now exists in the world unless where Christianity is acknowledged and is the religion of the country. . . .  Its foundations are broad and strong and deep . . . it is the purest system of morality, the firmest auxiliary, and only stable support of all human laws.[12]

7. Updegraph v. The Commonwealth, 11 Serg & R. 393, 394 (Sup. Ct. Penn. 1824).
8. Numerous early American lawyers, legal scholars, and politicians cited Blackstone’s work as a key legal source. For example, Blackstone is invoked as an authority in the writings of James Kent, James Wilson, Fisher Ames, Joseph Story, John Adams, Henry Laurens, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Madison, James Otis, et. al.
9. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, ed. (Wash. D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), vol. XII, p. 392.
10. Updegraph at 396, citing William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1769), vol. IV, p. 59.
11. Updegraph at 398-399.
12. Updegraph at 399, 402-4-3,406-407

From David Barton, Original Intent, pp. 52-54

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