FLASHBACK: April 19, 1996The Christian History of the U.S. Constitution

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the pages of Human Events on April 19, 1996.]

The place of religion in our public life continues to breed controversy on a host of topics – abortion, prayer in the schools, the “Christian right” and others.

A theme expressed relentlessly in these disputes is that America is a purely secular republic, set up on a nonreligious basis – much like the French Enlightenment and Revolution.  The people who founded our society, we are told, were secularists, liberals, or religious skeptics who wanted to keep ideas of God as far as possible form politics and government.  This view is supposedly embedded in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

The most influential version of this thesis is the statement of Justice Hugo Black, in a 1947 decision, asserting that the 1st Amendment means “neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church.  Neither can pass laws, which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another…No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.

Black’s absolutist doctrine has been the premise of many rulings by the federal courts, banning prayer and Bible-readings in the schools, display of the Ten Commandments, religious scenes in tax-supported settings, and a great deal else.  It’s also been the subject of much supported comment from the academy and media, where secular-liberal notions of all types have long enjoyed favor.

Highly suggestive of the mind-set is a recent history lesson-cum-polemic called the The Godless Constitution (Norton) by Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick, both professors at Cornell.  The provocative title tells the story.  While adopting the same stance as the courts, these authors key mainly on the fact that the federal Constitution forbids religious tests for office – thus supposedly proving that our fundamental law and politics are “godless."

Though hedging their bets in a few places, Moore and Kramnick offer some rather amazing and quite sweeping statements about the “secularism of the Constitution” and the “secular liberals” who framed it.  We are told in no uncertain terms, for instance, that “the principal architects of our national government envisioned a godless Constitution and a godless politics.”  This is repeated incessantly throughout: e.g., “the liberals of America’s founding generation rejected the ideal of the Christian state,” and countless variations.

A threshold problem with this treatment is that, while cast in tones of lofty condescension, it is riddled with the most glaring factual errors.  We are given the wrong date for the Stamp act, as well as for the debate in Congress on the Bill of Right, told that Franklin presided over the constitutional convention, and son on — things every schoolboy knows aren’t so.

More significant than these lapses are those pertaining directly to the thesis.  The authors suggest that Washington opposed taxation for the support of Christianity in Virginia (he said essentially the reverse, in the very statement the authors allude to); that Madison “unsuccessfully” “opposed” the appointment of chaplains in the Congress (historians of the matter find no contemporaneous evidence of this, though Madison expressed such views three decades later); that the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 dropped all religious tests for public office (It didn’t).  These are more than random errors: They conform to the central thesis and are deployed to sustain it.

The strange performance by two credentialed scholars at a respected school says much about our intellectual condition.  If this is the way professors teach, small wonder that their students, and lots of others, are befuddled.  Accordingly, some effort is required to recapture the truth about our country – which is radically different in almost all respects from what our courts and liberal authors tell us.  The following survey of some principal facts about the subject, highly compressed, is offered in this spirit. 

Virtually All Founders Were Professing Christians

The notion that America’s founders were “secular liberals” who wanted a “godless politics” – or held views remotely like those of Justice Black – is absurdly false.  As a teeming record amply shows, virtually all of them were professing Christians, affirmed their faith in God, and expressed this faith in public statements.  While they believed in religious liberty and the rights of conscience, they also believed that a free political order must be founded on religious faith, and that this faith should be officially acknowledged.

Thus, to take only some of the best-known personalities, Sam Adams of Massachusetts and Roger Sherman of Connecticut were old-fashioned Puritans (when Tom Paine surfaced as a Deist, Adams blasted him for “infidelity”; Sherman objected to Sunday legislative sessions as impious). John Dickinson, James Wilson and Patrick Henry were all explicitly religious; John Witherspoon of New Jersey was a famous Presbyterian divine; Rufus King of New York, Richard Bassett of Delaware, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina were all active in church affairs; and so on.

Of particular interest in this regard was Alexander Hamilton, depicted by Moore and Kramnick as “perhaps the least religious of the founders” – a political opportunist who tried to exploit religious issues.  (Hamilton sought to found an early version of the Christian coalition, which he called the Christian Constitutional Society.)  Unwary readers could hardly guess that Hamilton refused to fire at Burr in their fatal duel, as he explained in his final letter, because “the scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent rather than subject myself to the guilt of taking the life of another.”  If Hamilton was the “least religious” of the founders, what does that say about the rest? 

Equally weird is the author’s handling of John Adams, grouped with so-called “Enlightenment Deists” as believing “the state was a godless institution.”  Compare this bizarre assertion with Adams’ statement in 1775: “It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.  A patriot must be a religious man.’” Or his presidential proclamation, in 1898, urging Americans to “acknowledge before God the manifold sings and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable . . . beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace through the Redeemer of the world, freely to remit all offenses and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to . . .repentance and reformation.”

Even among the founders generally viewed as closest to the thinking of the Enlightenment, notably Jefferson and Franklin, the evidence religious faith striking.  Franklin’s appeal to the constitutional convention, “The longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth – that God governs the affairs of men,” was not political showboating, as sometimes suggested.  His private letters bring with statements of this type, culminating in a 1790 missive to Ezra Stiles, expressing his Unitarian faith in a creative, providential God, the need for worship, and the life hereafter. (Jefferson’s credo was virtually identical; see below.)

Finally, there is the greatest founder of them all.  Washington showed a strong religious bent throughout his public life, spoke much of providence in his dispatches, and adverted to religious themes in his official statements.  Consider this edict to his troops, five days after the Declaration of independence: “The blessings and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially so in times of public distress and danger.  The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor so to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”  Or this in 1778: “to the distinguished character of a Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.”

Official Political Support for Christian Religion

If it seems unlikely that people holding such opinions somehow turned around and created a purely secular republic, or a “godless” anything, rest assured they didn’t.  The religious attitudes expressed so often by the founders were widely reflected in the political practice of the era.  Most notably, almost all the original colonies/states had laws mandating official support for religious belief and custom. 

In 1775, no fewer than nine colonies had established churches, ranging from Congregational establishments in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts to Episcopal churches in the Southern states from Maryland on down.  These were subject to many conflicting pressures throughout the Revolutionary/constitutional age, mostly from religious causes.  An oft-neglected aspect of our past is that the period leading up to the Revolution was generally speaking a time, not of rampant disbelief, but of religious fervor – the first so-called Great Awakening. (Case in point: in Connecticut, ca. 1750, it was made a felony to deny the doctrine of the Trinity.)

A major effect of the awakening was to expand the religious diversity of the country.  To Congregationalists, Anglicans, Quakers and a few (albeit influential) Roman Catholics were added increasingly numerous Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists.  Many of these resisted paying taxes for the support of other sects and, when they became strong enough, succeeded.  Even so, at the era of the Constitution, the New England states retained their Congregational establishments, while in most of the other states there remained a network of religious requirements for public office.

Thus, to take and example more or less at random, Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791, contemporaneous with the ratification of the Bill of Rights. This was the oath that office-holders were required to take there: “I do believe in one God, the creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked.  And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by divine inspiration an down and profess the Protestant religion.” 

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, like those in other states, contained the same proviso; in 1790, however, this was changed to the assertion (misstated by Moore and Kramnick) that “no person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments, shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profile under this commonwealth.”  This was one of the more liberal jurisdictions of the era.

The evolution of such standards may be traced quite clearly in the Carolinas, whose original constitution (1669) was drafted by John Locke.  This stated, among other things, that “no man shall be permitted to be a freeman of Carolina, or to have any estate or Habitation within it, that doth knot acknowledge a God; and that God is publicly and solemnly to be worshipped.” (Our authors talk much about the influence of Locke on the founding of America; for some reason, this highly specific example of this influence is neglected.)

By the time of the American Revolution, this Lockean standard was relaxed a bit, but not a lot.  The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 specified that “no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of either the Old or New Testaments . . . shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust.”  This lasted until 1835, when the word “Christian” was substituted for “Protestant.”  In 1868, this was amended again, to read that “all persons who shall deny the being of Almighty God” would “be disqualified for office.”  This was the way things were handled in the other states as well.

Our secular liberals tend to glide over all this without explaining it very clearly (if at all), to focus on the supposedly more congenial instance of Virginia.  Here Jefferson drafted and Madison introduced the famous statue of Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786, guaranteeing the rights of the conscience to all Virginians.  To our modern theorists, this bill, together with Madison’s arguments against religious taxes, explains the purpose of the federal 1st Amendment — allegedly meaning a la Justice Black, no official backing for religion.

The problems with this convoluted view are many, beginning with the fact that neither Jefferson nor Madison as Virginia legislators took an archly separationist stance.  A point not often noted by our modern jurists is that the Statue of Religious Freedom was only one of the religious bills that Jefferson drafted and Madison presented.  Among Jefferson’s proposed revisals of Virginia law, for instance, were a bill to punish violations of the Sabbath, another providing for days prayer and thanksgiving, and yet another – a choice example of “Enlightenment” thinking – to punish attempted witchcraft.  Like Locke’s provisos for the Carolinas, these somehow got omitted from our histories.

Add the intriguing fact that the Statue of Religious Freedom itself is anything but “godless, beginning with the words, “Whereas Almighty God, hath created the mind free,” and containing no fewer than four references to God in the opening sentence. (If the doctrines of the Supreme Court are correct, this statue could not be read in unvarnished from in the public schools of Virginia now.)  The same is true of Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” against religious taxes, which is itself a religious essay – arguing e.g. that “the policy of the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity” and earnestly praying, as we are in duty bound, that the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe would guide Virginia’s councils.  Not exactly “godless,” is it?

It is quite true that, for reasons, to be noted, Jefferson as President refused to issue thanksgiving proclamations (the only one of the early Presidents to do so).  However, he followed a very different pattern in his native religion.  Space permits but one example.  His plan for the University of Virginia, while avoiding sectarian teachers of divinity, matter-of-factly states: “The proofs of the being of a God, the creator, the preserver and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics.”  In Jefferson’s Virginia, neither the doings of state government, nor plans for public education, were “godless.”

Congress Approved Printing of Bible

The many religious customs common in the states were also prevalent at the national level.  From the beginning, the Continental Congress had official chaplains, prayers, and days of fasting and Thanksgiving.  When sessions opened in 1774, fear was voiced that the religious diversity of the country would make it hard to choose a form of worship.  Sam Adams responded: “I am not a bigot, I can hear a prayer by a man of piety and virtue who is at the same time a friend of his country.”  Congress had official chaplains from that day forward. 

In June 1775, Congress called for “a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer,” to “offer up our joint supplications to the all-wise, omnipotent and merciful disposer of all events.”  In observance of this fast day, Congress attended an Anglican service in the morning and a Presbyterian service in the afternoon.  Resort to such religious themes was frequent.

Congress also did other things to promote the interests of religion.  It appropriated money for the Christian education of the Indians, and adopted the Norwest Ordinance for governing the territories beyond the Ohio River, saying it was doing so, among other reasons, to advance “religion and morality.” 

Among the more notable ventures of the Congress was an effort to see about the printing of a Bible, as the supply from England had been cut off by the fighting.  In October 1780, Congress adopted a resolution recommending that “such of the states that may find it convenient. . .take proper measures to procure one or more new and correct versions of the Old and New Testaments to be printed.”  Congress also approved, as a matter of course, chaplains and religious services for the soldiers.

Under the new government of the Constitution, beginning in 1789, all of the peacetime measures were repeated: chaplains, prayers, memorials of Thanksgiving, the Northwest Ordinance, funding for the Christian education of Indians.  Apparently, members of this assembly were unaware that the U.S. Constitution had suddenly rendered our politics “godless” or made it impossible to give official backing to religion.  Nor did they hold any such notions about the 1st Amendment, which they were busy drafting and adopting.

The point is ironically made by the very timing of the amendment.  The language that had been debated throughout the summer was finally voted by the House of Representatives on September 24 1789.  The very next day, the self-same House of Representatives also voted a resolution of prayer and thanksgiving, saying: “We acknowledge with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording [The United States] an opportunity peacefully to establish a constitutional government for their safety and happiness.”  Congress accordingly called on President Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, which he proceeded to do forthwith (the origin of our present legal holiday to this effect).  So much for having a “godless government.”

Jefferson on the Real ‘Wall of Separation’

How does all this fit in with the statement of Justice black, that no level of government can render any official backing whatsoever to religion, and that “no tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions”?  Or with the contention of our present authors, that the absence of a religious test for federal office means we have a “godless” politics and Constitution?  The obvious answer to both questions is, it doesn’t.

In point of fact, the 1st Amendment ban on an “establishment of religion,” and the absence of a religious test for federal office, rose from identical sources (and were otherwise related): the great religious diversity of the country, the multiplicity of sects and the wide variety of religious practice in the states. These factors, combined with a valuable campaign against the potential dangers of the new centralized regime, made people extremely nervous, fearing that some kind of “national” religion would be established.  State ratifying conventions sought to guard against this.  As Madison explained it when he argued for the Bill of Rights:

“Whether the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some of the state conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion . . . that Congress. . .might infringe the rights of conscience and establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended.”

The point, that is, was to prevent the newly created federal government from preferring one sect above the others or interfering with diverse existing practice – including, it might be noted, state established churches.  This distinction is blandly effaced by such as Moore and Kramnick, who speak as though these prohibitions on a “national” religion were meant (a) to squelch all official backing for religious faith, and (b) to govern our “politics” in general.  Both propositions are clearly false.  They ignore not only the religious sentiments of the era but also the highly limited nature of the federal government, which designedly left such matters, and a great many others, to the states.

Our best authority for this, oddly enough, is Jefferson, who hammered on this point repeatedly, as in his “wall of separation” letter of 1802 (making it clear that the object of restraint was Congress).  Consistent with all this other statements of such issues, and his states’ rights view in general, Jefferson put it this way in 1808.”

“I consider the government of the United States as interdicted from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines, or exercises.  This results from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof, but also from that which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States [the 10th Amendment]. Certainly now power over religious discipline has been delegated to the general government.  It must thus rest with the states as far as it can be in any human authority.”  (Emphasis.

Jefferson, as he usually did, put the matter well.  The “wall of separation”  was between the federal government and the states, whose religious practices – including all matter of public backing for religion – were completely unaffected by the federal Constitution or the 1st Amendment.