A friend of mine who read my posts last week posed a couple of questions on Facebook and asked for my opinion on them. Both were great questions, and I wish I had more space to answer them then just a short blog post, but let me give it a try. I need two days to answer the first question, and then I’ll tackle the second.
First, let me point out that we should never try to build an argument about how Christians should live by relying on only one verse or passage from the Bible. The Bible is not easily broken down into lists of “do this” and “don’t do that” that can be applied in any circumstance. The Bible is not so much an instruction manual on living as it is a tool for getting to know the living God. So the question should not be, “Doesn’t the Bible say….?” It should be “What does the Bible tell me about God that will help me live in a way that pleases him?”
When asked about paying taxes to the Roman government, Jesus looked at the image of Caesar on a Roman coin and said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). He quietly passed on the opportunity to take a political stand against the Roman invaders ruling over the people of Israel – a stand that would have thrilled the political zealots in his audience while giving the religious leaders cause to have him thrown in jail by the Roman authorities. Some might say he was using Solomon-like wisdom to stay out of trouble. Others might say he was promoting tolerance and unity, as if to say, “It’s okay to be religious, but don’t let it affect the way you deal with other people.”
These are both tempting approaches to difficult situations where our faith and our culture seem to clash, but I don’t think either of these interpretations is consistent with everything else the Bible teaches us about Jesus. He wasn’t afraid of stirring up trouble for himself, and he had a lot to say about living in a radical way that really reflects your belief in God. Jesus’ real meaning in this passage is found in the rest of his sentence: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The real trick is figuring out what we owe to “Caesar” – the government and any other secular authority over us – and what we owe to God.
First of all, we owe to God obedience to his word, and that includes obedience to his command to “submit…to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), to “pay taxes” (Romans 13:6), and to pray for “all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We owe him trust in his sovereignty and a recognition that “the authorities that exist have been established by God” and they are “his servants” (Romans 13:1-7). Yet we also owe God our undivided loyalty and allegiance: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3); “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). So there will be times when we have to ask, “If I give to Caesar what is demanded by Caesar, will I be failing to give to God what is demanded by God?” Then, like Peter and John, we will be required to say, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?” (Acts 4:19).
Many people throughout the ages have chosen to listen to God rather than earthly authorities and they have been ridiculed, blackballed, thrown in jail, tortured, and even killed. Jesus was one of them. If that doesn’t get you thinking deeply about the choices you make in life, I don’t know what will.
For three days I’ve been talking about interpreting the Constitution, but my goal in writing these posts had little to do with the Constitution. I wanted to dig into a messy subject, clear away some misconceptions, and draw out an important point. Please bear with me for a few more paragraphs while I get to the heart of the matter.
Four days ago I was accused of being a bad American because I didn’t agree with a man who had strong feelings about what is wrong with America and who is to blame. He chose to divide Americans into three groups: those who were destroying our American heritage, those who were trying to protect it, and those who would stand by and do nothing (“people like you,” he said to me accusingly). I tried to respond civilly and rationally to his arguments, and I came home and did some research on his claims, but even if he turned out to be right that “natural born citizen” in the US Constitution originally meant a person born in the US to two US citizens, I couldn’t agree with him that our nation was in terrible peril because it had elected a President who had one parent who was not a US citizen.
As I watch the news, check in on social media, and talk to my friends, I can see that many people are passionate about this nation and looking for someone to blame for its problems. That includes many Christians. I hope as a writer and a teacher I can help my fellow Christians to step back, analyze the facts, think about what they believe, and then act like they really believe it – even in the sensitive area of politics and national heritage.
In my book, One Nation Under God, originally published in 2005, I set out to show the importance of separating our allegiance to our nation and our allegiance to God – and always remembering which was more important. In the next month or two, I will be rewriting that book to add current events and better explain some of the important points. Right now – before the revised book is published – you can download the entire original manuscript from my website free of charge!
In another book, Standing Firm, I show the importance of trusting God with every part of our life and seeing what is happening in our world, and in our nation, through God’s Word. I’ve just finished rewriting that book, and it will be available from Amazon.com next month.
The third book I would like to write is The End: And Why it Matters. This book will look at the big picture of God’s plan for his creation and what part we as Christians should play in that plan. I hope to have that book out next year. After all, it's only when we know where we're going that we can find a way to get there.
There is a lot of fear and uncertainty among Christians in American today as we see our culture changing and our beliefs being marginalized and ridiculed. We can look for people to blame; we can fight to bring back the good old days; or we can trust God and continue to shine his light in a dark world.
Please come back and read more next week. Right now, I’ve got to get back to writing those books!
Since I have intrigued at least a few people on the issue of natural born citizens, I want to provide you with the legal definition.
In 1904, Frederick van Dyne, the Assistant Solicitor of the US Department of State, published a textbook, Citizenship of the United States, in which he said, "There is no uniform rule of international law covering the subject of citizenship. Every nation determines for itself who shall, and who shall not, be its citizens.... By the law of the United States, citizenship depends, generally, on the place of birth; nevertheless the children of citizens, born out of the jurisdiction of the United States, are also citizens...."
Van Dyne pointed out that the Constitution, while mentioning citizenship, contained no definition of that term until the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868. Prior to this time each state in the US applied its own law to determine citizenship, either by statute or common law (law based on previous judicial decisions rather than written statutes).
So what did the Framers and signers of the Constitution intend when they added the requirement that the President be a “natural born citizen”? Since many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and almost all of the men who drafted the Constitution, were lawyers – trained in English common law – it is most likely that they intended the common law meaning of the term.
The leading commentary on English common law at the time the Constitution was drafted clearly stated that “Natural-born subjects are such as are born within the dominions of the crown of England.” The parentage of the subject is immaterial. Being born in England made you an English citizen. Being born in the colonies made you an English citizen (up until the Revolution). Being born in the new United States would have made you a natural-born citizen of the United States.
It’s true that you can find different interpretations of ‘citizen’ or ‘natural-born citizen’ from the 18th century or earlier, and it’s possible that at least some of the people who wrote, signed or ratified the Constitution intended the term to have a stricter meaning. However, the standard meaning of the term at the time the Constitution was written was that anyone born in the US was a citizen of the US without regard to the nationality of one or both of his parents.
I hope that answers the question of the “strict interpretation” of the Constitution’s requirements for the President of the United States. Before I leave this issue, though, I want to add one more post on it tomorrow. I have stated that my mission as a writer “is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they really believe it.” So come back tomorrow when I will answer the question, “What does any of this have to do with acting like a Christian?”
If you read my last blog post, you know I was recently challenged by someone I will call a “strict constructionist” – someone who thinks the US Constitution should always be interpreted the way the original authors of the Constitution intended. The particular argument I was challenged with was that the current president of the United States is not legally our president because he is not a “natural born citizen” of the United States as the framers of the Constitution intended. He was not born in the United States to two US citizens.
When asked if I agreed that “natural born citizen” meant only someone born in the United States to two US citizens, I said no. I have a few different reasons for that. The first is that we have to be very careful with the idea of strict construction because it’s very difficult to know exactly what “the Framers of the Constitution” or the “Founding Fathers” intended.
Oh, you can find books with quotes from George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin talking about the Constitution or its principles. Some people rely on writings by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay, even though they weren’t part of the Constitutional Convention. But no one back then wrote a “full guide to the Constitution through the eyes of the Founders.” Such a thing doesn’t exist, and it would have been very difficult to write.
The Constitutional Convention was made up of 55 men, representing only 12 of the original 13 states. (Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the convention.) After the final draft of the Constitution was prepared, 13 delegates left the convention in protest and 3 more refused to sign it. It is doubtful that any of the 39 men who did sign the Constitution whole-heartedly agreed with every provision in it, as it had only been produced after much debate and many compromises. Benjamin Franklin declared, "I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them…. [T]he older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”
Fifty-five men debated the Constitution, 39 signed it, but it took much more debate and many more men to make the Constitution the law of the land. Every state had to consider whether or not to ratify the Constitution, and at least nine of the states had to agree to it – just as it was written – before it would take effect. None of those men could quibble with the phrases used to define and limit the powers of the three branches of government. All they could do was say “yes” or say “no, go back and try again.”
So if I’m asked if a certain phrase in the Constitution should be interpreted the way the it was originally intended, I have to ask, “Intended by whom – the person who first suggested the provision, other Founding Fathers who contributed ideas for the Constitution, the Committee of Detail that drafted the Constitution, the Committee of Style and Arrangement that redrafted it and added final changes, the 39 members of the convention who signed the document, or the hundreds of men making up the state legislatures or ratifying conventions in the 13 states who eventually approved it?” After all, each one of those people was essential to the creation of the document.
“Strict Construction” is a nice idea, but only if we approach the idea cautiously, being careful to not assume that everyone involved in writing and approving of our Constitution actually agreed on what it meant.
Tune in tomorrow for One Last Word on “Natural Born Citizen.”
An interesting thing happened last night – I was accused of being a bad American. I don’t recall the exact words used in the accusation, but “people like you” was repeated several times.
I was representing my chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Constitution Week Fair in Gilbert, Arizona, standing in front of our table inviting people to come learn about the DAR and to sign Christmas cards we will be sending to a U.S. military base overseas. I was wearing red, white, and blue, and explaining to anyone who asked that everyone in our group had an ancestor who either fought in or provided support for the American Revolution. Three men who were passing by were intrigued by what I was saying and they engaged me in a conversation. Eventually, two of the men moved on, but the third stayed to talk about something very important to him, with which he was sure I would agree based on my family’s connection with the birth of this great country.
In short, this man believed that there are many things wrong with our country today because the Constitution is being ignored. He believes our current president is to blame for many of the bad choices being made in this country, and that Barak Obama shouldn’t even be president because he is not a “natural born citizen” as required by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution. I was prepared for another accusation regarding missing birth certificates but was surprised with a different argument instead. According to the man speaking with me, “natural born citizen” had a very specific meaning in the minds of the framers of the Constitution. It meant – according to my source – a person born in the United States to two United States citizens. The framers didn’t spell it out more clearly because to them it was the obvious interpretation of the phrase “natural born citizen.”
Since I had never heard this claim before (even though I took Constitutional Law in law school, have taught Constitutional Law at a community college, and have read numerous books on the Constitution), I didn’t have much I could say in response. When asked directly by the man if I agreed with this interpretation, I had to say no. I came up with a few legal arguments to support my “no” but none of them swayed the man. He declared he was very disappointed that someone with my “background” would not support the clear meaning of the Constitution. If “people like me” would not stand up and require our government to follow the Constitution our country was going to get even worse.
I was saved from continuing the conversation by the end of the Fair and our need to pack up our supplies and head home, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this most interesting conversation. It reminded me of the first time I released my book One Nation Under God which I am getting ready to update and release again. I realized then that my views on American history and politics were different than most people I know. Sometimes when I explain my views in detail, people will nod their heads and say, “You’re right, I never thought about it that way.” Other people shake their heads at me in complete disagreement with my views. The accusation that “people like me” will ruin this country will probably be repeated in the future if I dare to share my ideas again.
But I am going to share my ideas. It’s a free country, after all. I think I have something important to say, and I’m going to say it. In writing One Nation Under God, my intent was not to tell people what to think, but to give them something to think about. That will be my intent in this blog as well. I hope people will be brave enough to read the blog and make up their own minds about the very difficult and complex issues we face in America today. Tomorrow, I’ll write about my opinion on the “strict interpretation” of the Constitution. I hope you’ll come back and read it.
What is my mission as an author? It's a tough question, but I believe the goal dearest to my heart is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they really believe it. It all begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian. Then we have to learn to live like a Christian.