One of the most influential books during the American founding era was the book The Spirit of the Laws by the Baron of Montesquieu, and as is the case with most of the ancient philosophers, most Americans have never read Montesquieu's work. This has become especially evident in the current dispute over the President's claim that the religion of Islam played a significant role in the formation of our nation. Many historians have agreed with the President on this point, but if the founders of our nation were even half as influenced by Montesquieu as historians claim that they were, then it would be nearly impossible for them to have accepted Islam as a good foundation on which to build a nation. In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu concluded "that a moderate government is most agreeable to the Christian religion, and a despotic government to the Mahometans," and then he defended that conclusion with this analysis:
The Christian religion is a stranger to mere despotic power. The mildness so frequently recommended in the gospel, is incompatible with the despotic rage with which a prince punishes his subjects, and exercises himself in cruelty.
As this religion forbids the plurality of wives, its princes are less confined, less concealed from their subjects, and consequently have more humanity: they are more disposed to be directed by laws, and more capable of perceiving that they cannot do whatever they please.
While the Mahometan princes incessantly give or receive death, the religion of the Christians renders their princes less timid, and consequently less cruel. The prince confides in his subjects, and the subjects in the prince. How admirable the religion which, while it seems only to have in view the felicity of the other life, constitutes the happiness of this!
'Tis the Christian religion, that in spite of the extent of the empire, and the influence of the climate, has hindered despotic power from being established in Aethiopia, and has carried into the heart of Africa the manners and laws of Europe.
The heir to the empire of Aethiopia enjoys a principality, and gives to other subjects an example of love and obedience. No far from thence may be seen the Mahometan shutting up the children of the king of Sennao; at whose death the council sends to murder them, in favour of the prince who mounts the throne.
Let us set before our eyes on the one hand the continual massacres of the kings and generals of the Greeks and Romans; and on the other, the destruction of people and cities by the commanders Thimur and Gengiskan, who ravaged Asia; and we shall see that we owe to christianity, in government a certain political law, and in war a certain law of nations, benefits which human nature can never sufficiently acknowledge.
It is owing to this law of nations, that amongst us victory leaves these great advantages to the conquered, life, liberty, laws, wealth, and always religion when the conqueror is not blind to his own interest.
We may truly say, that the people of Europe are not at present more disunited than the people and the armies, or even the armies amongst themselves, were under the Roman empire, when it was become a despotic and military government. On the one hand, the armies engaged in war against each other; and, on the other, they pillaged the cities, and divided or confiscated the lands.
From the characters of the Christian and Mahometan religions we ought, without any further examination to embrace the one, and reject the other: for it is much easier to prove that religion ought to humanize the manners of men, than that any particular religion is true.
It is a misfortune to human nature, when religion is given by a conqueror. The Mahometan religion which speaks only by the sword, acts still upon men with that destructive spirit with which it was founded.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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