Christanity’s Influence on American Law

5 12 2007

Filed under: Christianity, Law, Harvard, Joseph Story

I normally don’t link most of another post, but Greg Jones’ post today on Christianity’s influence on American law and the Christian context of Harvard Law School’s rich history was too good to pass up.

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Joseph Story, a devout Christian, served as dean of Harvard’s law school from 1829 to 1845, and accounted for much of its growth and success in its early years. Considered the foremost American legal scholar of his time, Story was the youngest justice ever appointed to the Court (at age 32) and served on the Court for 34 years, simultaneously serving as Harvard’s law dean for 16 of those years, until his death. As part of his responsibility as a Harvard law professor, Story wrote several “Commentaries” on law, the most enduring of which was his three volume Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.

Story’s in-depth legal studies firmly convinced him that “Christianity is part of the common law,” and the common law of England was known to be the backbone of American law. He believed that “government cannot long exist without an alliance with religion to some extent” and that “Christianity is indispensable to the true interests & solid foundation of all free governments.” He believed this because he could not see “how any deep sense of moral obligation or accountableness can be expected to prevail in the community without a firm persuasion of the great Christian Truths . . . .” (Quotes from Story letter to Rev. Jasper Adams, May 14, 1833). These beliefs affected his treatment and teaching of the law. In studying the law and deciding legal disputes he was not just looking for the pragmatic answer to a problem, but rather for the underlying and unchanging principles—the Veritas in Harvard’s motto—that made human law an extension of God’s work on earth.

This view of the law and legal teaching radically began to change in 1870 when Christopher Columbus Langdell was appointed to Story’s old professorship position; soon thereafter he became the law dean, a position he held for 25 years. Langdell revolutionized legal education by introducing the “case method” of teaching. This involved having students read a collection of cases on a subject and cull from those cases the points of law governing that subject. Previous to this, students at Harvard and elsewhere studied law by learning general principles and then reading cases that illustrated those principles. The difference between the two methods is that in the latter method law is assumed to come from general moral principles that are ultimately derived from God’s law, while the case-law method assumes that the law comes from cases themselves and as more judicial opinions are written, the law evolves over time as judges change and revise it. This method inevitably leads to the conclusion that the law is ultimately derived from judges rather than divine (or even legislative) legal principles.

Evolution of the breathingist.

And the charge that these law schools want their graduates to take over government and impose a theocracy completely misunderstands what Christian legal education inculcates to students. Christian teaching emphasizes the idea of being a servant in the law for the greater good. It understands that law is made for the Christian and non-Christian alike, and that, as James Madison expressed in his Memorial and Remonstrance, true belief cannot be coerced, so the hand of government is not to be used to force a particular outcome on matters of faith. The one important caveat is that when God’s law and the laws of society conflict on fundamental issues, God’s law must take precedence because there is such a thing as absolute right and wrong. Students at Christian law schools learn—as Harvard’s students once did—that the legal profession is not about twisting words to achieve a monetarily beneficial end, but about seeking veritas so that we may be governed wisely. And Truth, as the greatest teacher of all once said, shall set (and keep) us free.

When truth comes from man and not God, it’s only natural that it change as “case law” or breathingist judges see fit to advance their agenda instead of remaining fixed with absolutes and constant morals.

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