In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” He contrasts these persons with him who “hears these words of mine and does not do them.” This latter man built his house “on the sand.” When rain and storms come, the first house stands firm while the second, not only falls, “but great was the fall of it.”
Americans must ask upon what kind of foundation they built their political house. What first principles created us, define us, and thus should continue to guide us going forward? Some have posited that our rightful foundation rests on a literal rock—Plymouth Rock. By saying so, they mean that the Puritans who came to New England in 1620 defined our Founding and should prescribe our tomorrow.
These persons point to the Mayflower Compact, the charter those settlers signed as the basis for their political community. This document clearly displays the political ends which these Puritans pursued and the means they established in that pursuit. We must declare them and then assess them. We thereby must ask whether this foundation of Plymouth Rock in 1620 is in fact our own as Americans in 2022.
The Compact says that it seeks to “plant” a colony. More importantly, it states what it intends to do in establishing that political community. It first lists “the Glory of God.” It follows with the “advancement of the Christian Faith,” then the “honour of our King and Country,” and, finally, their “better ordering and preservation.” Together, these make up the ends of their political community.
We must see in the first purpose the overarching one, the final end to which all others in the Compact strive. The Puritans were defined by a faith that placed God’s glory the highest in priority and all-comprehensive in its pursuit. Thus, they must advance the Christian faith, increasing who glorified God. Their honoring king and country also assumed a religious element, since they saw King James as a Christian prince and England as a Christian nation. Their honor was a mere reflection of God’s glory. Even good ordering and preservation linked back to God’s glory, since the Compact says they will so do in “furtherance of the ends aforesaid.”
Clearly, the foundation laid on Plymouth Rock required a particular kind of religious subscription by all citizens and officers in the colony. To be a rightful citizen, one must be a rightful believer. Did Americans who wrote the Declaration of Independence and ratified the United States Constitution build on this foundation or on another?
The Founders did not deny the importance of God in general or the Christian faith in particular. The Declaration of Independence mentions God no less than four times. God authors the laws of nature. He is the Creator who “endows” human beings with equal rights. The Declaration also calls God the “Supreme Judge of the world,” to whom they make the ultimate appeal for the justice of their revolution. Finally, the document concludes by a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
But the Founder’s God took a different approach to religious practice than did the one whose glory the Puritans pursued. The Puritans demanded as a political act of citizenship on earth uniform practice aligned with citizenship in Heaven. In other words, religious liberty as we understand they rejected as hostile to the proper ends of good government.
Our Constitution, while not contradicting the Declaration, made sure that religious liberty helped define the political implications of God. The Constitution denied all religious tests for holding national office. Its First Amendment rejected the establishment of a national church as well as protecting the free exercise of religion for all. The purpose of human life might be to glorify God. But our politics would leave wide sway for persons to come to that conclusion on their own. Our laws would let persons who so decided additional liberty to consider how exactly to glorify God. Our laws would not enforce the advancement of Christianity. But we would permit its spread and protect the right of its adherents to share, to persuade throughout the land. We must also say, then, that it protected the right of conscience for even those who rejected this view of God or the existence of God altogether.
Thus, we understand that our foundation owes some influence to Plymouth Rock. Yet we cannot call it our perfect and complete foundation. We did not follow its ends in the exact same way. Instead, the Mayflower Compact influenced the Founding even more in the additional means it posited to run its political community. To achieve their ends, they wrote they would “Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic.” They founded a political regime on the basis of consent, of the willing agreement of their citizens. No outside tyrant imposed their ends upon them. In the same way, our Constitution opens that “We, the People,” did “ordain and establish” the Constitution for the purposes written therein.
Moreover, they said this new political community would, “constitute and frame…just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices.” They committed themselves to the rule of law, not the fiat of human beings. These Puritans also declared that rightful laws should contain two qualities: justice and equality. They must pursue the good and do so equally for all. Our Founding agreed. The Constitution’s Preamble gives one of its purposes as “to establish justice.” The Declaration’s commitment to equality informs so much of the Constitution, but especially the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, which says that no state shall deny any person the equal protection of the laws.
Thus, we see ourselves on a different foundation than that laid on Plymouth Rock. Ours did not deny God but recognized Him as one of political and religious liberty. At the same time, we took much in the means from Plymouth, especially consent of the governed and just as well as equal laws. Was this foundation on a true rock or did we build a sandy foundation doomed to a great fall? We find the answer in the experience of the last 250 years. America endured. More than endured, it thrived. It rose to become a beacon of human equality and liberty, the “last, best hope” as Abraham Lincoln once called it. Its true foundation rested on those commitments—human equality and liberty—as understood through the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Those principles still hold out the promise of provision, provision of a strong foundation against all storms, internal or external. It does; but only if we continue to build wisely and faithfully upon it.
Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.