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The Story

A new survey finds that almost one in three white evangelicals in America believe that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired.

The Background

“Some Americans clearly long for a more avowedly religious and explicitly Christian country,” according to a Pew Research Center survey. For example, the survey finds that about one in five Americans (19 percent) says the U.S. Constitution is inspired by God. The groups most likely to make that claim includes the highly religious (37 percent) and white evangelicals (37 percent).

What It Means

As far as this poll reflects reality, we confront a troubling dilemma: either one-third of white evangelicals don’t know what it means for a text to be inspired by God, or one-third of white evangelicals have embraced a heretical Mormon doctrine.

What does it mean for a document to be “inspired by God”? That depends, of course, on what we mean by “inspired.”

Many Americans hold to the Humpty-Dumpty Theory of Language. As the character Humpty-Dumpty says in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

For Humpty, he was the master and words were the servants; they had no authority to tell him how he should use them. While we may not be as scornful as Humpty, this is often the way we use language—words mean what we want. But for a word or phrase to be useful in public—such as when used in a poll—it must have a shared meaning commonly understood and agreed on.

Fortunately, such a shared meaning already exists for the phrase “inspired by God”—at least as used by evangelicals.

A helpful starting point for understanding how evangelicals use the term is the late 1800s, when the rise of higher criticism became a threat to the infallibility of Scripture. In response to this threat, A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield published the essay “Inspiration” (1881) in The Presbyterian Review. They wrote:

During the entire history of Christian theology the word Inspiration has been used to express either some or all of the activities of God, cooperating with its human authors in the genesis of Holy Scripture. We prefer to use it in the single sense of God’s continued work of superintendence, by which his providential, gracious, and supernatural contributions having been presupposed. He presided over the sacred writers in their entire work of writing, with the design and effect of rendering that writing an errorless record of the matters he designed them to communicate, and hence constituting the entire volume in all its parts the Word of God to us.

As they note, when God divinely inspires a text, it is Holy Scripture. They go further by claiming that such divinely inspired writing is also errorless.

Hodge and Warfield present their view of inspiration as verbal and plenary. By verbal they mean the very words chosen by the human authors were inspired by God; by plenary they mean the inspiration was “full” or “complete,” and applied to the entire Bible. Subsequent defenders of the doctrine of inerrancy, especially among evangelicals, would often adopt this formulation of “verbal plenary inspiration.”

Within the United States, Hodge and Warfield’s essay would have a deep and profound influence on the doctrine of inerrancy. They had a particularly strong influence on the document known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). Article VII of the Chicago Statement clarifies:

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by his Spirit, through human writers, gave us his Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us. We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.

You can be an evangelical and not subscribe to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But if you’re an evangelical who agrees with that view of inerrancy, you should hold the same consistent view on inspiration. The use of “divinely inspired” thus has a specific meaning when used by conservative evangelicals. As Matthew Barrett explains,

That word “inspiration” is key. It does not mean the human authors of Scripture merely recorded their religious experience, as if they saw what God did and were so excited that they wrote it down only for God to come along and adopt it as his own. That may be the common use of the word “inspired” today but that is not what the Bible itself means by the term. For example, consider Paul’s words to Timothy about Scripture, and not just some parts but all of it: “All Scripture is breathed out (θεόπνευστος) by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the Scriptures do not originate with the human authors but with God himself.

All Scripture is divinely inspired by God. What makes a text Scripture is that it has been divinely inspired. A document that is divinely inspired is thus part of Holy Scripture.

Which brings us back to the original question: Is the U.S. Constitution inspired by God?

When Hodge and Warfield wrote their essay 140 years ago, the threat to inspiration came from liberal Mainline Protestantism. Today, in this instance, the threat comes from conservative Mormonism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) believes that God, in a “Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet,” established the “Constitution of this land [the United States], by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.” Since 1833, ​​Mormonism has taught that the Constitution is divinely inspired. (There is no consensus on whether the whole Constitution, or only parts, is inspired.)

Dallin H. Oaks is a law professor and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest leadership body of the LDS church. In “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” he writes:

Reverence for the United States Constitution is so great that sometimes individuals speak as if its every word and phrase had the same standing as scripture. Personally, I have never considered it necessary to defend every line of the Constitution as scriptural. For example, I find nothing scriptural in the compromise on slavery or the minimum age or years of citizenship for congressmen, senators, or the president. President J. Reuben Clark, who referred to the Constitution as “part of my religion,” also said that it was not part of his belief or the doctrine of the Church that the Constitution was a “fully grown document.” “On the contrary,” he said, “We believe it must grow and develop to meet the changing needs of an advancing world.”

The Mormon view is that the Constitution can be divinely inspired but still contain error, even significant error (such as endorsement of chattel slavery). No doubt many white evangelicals agree. The problem is that if you believe the Constitution can be divinely inspired and yet fallible, how can you defend the claim that the Bible is divinely inspired and infallible? What standard are you applying to determine whether some inspired works of God are without error while others are error-prone?

The term “inspiration” and the phrase “inspired by God” have a particular meaning within Christianity and a specific denotation within evangelicalism. In neither sense can the term properly be applied to any documents that are not considered Scripture. By attempting to venerate the U.S. Constitution, many white evangelicals are inadvertently undermining God’s Word. Far better to abandon that claim about the Constitution and distance themselves from Mormonism.