Tag Archives: godless Constitution

Inconvenient History

On the 4th of July, the Indianapolis Star had dueling full-page ads, one from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and another purchased by Hobby Lobby, both focused upon the “real” beliefs of the Founders. Taken together, they were a great example of the perennial battles over separation of church and state.

A post yesterday from Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars points out how much that narrative has changed.

During the arguments over ratification of the Constitution and for a considerable time thereafter, religious folks complained bitterly about the “godlessness” of the Constitution, and made several efforts to amend religion into it. When those efforts failed, they switched tactics, and began to argue that the Constitution established the US as a “Christian nation.”

Brayton quotes Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale, who wrote:

“Notwithstanding the prevalence of Religion, which I have described, the irreligion, and the wickedness, of our land are such, as to furnish a most painful and melancholy prospect to a serious mind. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgment of God ; without any recognition of his mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessing upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God.”

Historians Isaac Kramnick and Lawrence Moore offered many similar examples in their book The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State:

If there was little debate in Philadelphia over the “no religious test” clause, a veritable firestorm broke out in the country at large during the ratification conventions in each of the states. Outraged Protestants attacked what they saw, correctly, as a godless Constitution. The “no religious test” clause was perceived by many to be the gravest defect of the Constitution. Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state’s ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Amos Singletary, another delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, was upset at the Constitution’s not requiring men in power to be religious “and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they.” In New Hampshire the fear was of “a papist, a Mohomatan [sic], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government.” Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, wamed that “the exclusion of religious tests” was “dangerous and impolitic” and that “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [sic] might obtain offices among us.” If there is no religious test, he asked, “to whom will they [officeholders] swear support-the ancient pagan gods of jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?”

As Brayton notes, “attempts were made throughout the 1800s to amend the Constitution to include language expressing the nation’s dependence on God or Jesus (depending on the specific amendment), all of which failed. It was only in the early 20th century that they suddenly reversed themselves and began arguing that the Constitution they had been condemning for more than a century as godless was really a Christian document all along.”

Of course, it is a lot easier to make that argument these days, when so few schools bother to teach–and so few people know–their country’s history.