Sorry to tell you, but the UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION IS NOT A “RELIGIOUS” DOCUMENT! Surprised?
God, the Constitution, and the Christian Right:
The Christian Right regularly claims that America is a “Christian Nation” and was founded on Christian principles. If this is the case, then those principles should be identifiable in America’s founding legal document, the Constitution. If the Constitution explicitly reflects Christian principles
and doctrines, then the Christian Right is correct that America was founded on Christianity; otherwise, their claims are wishful thinking at best. So where are God and religion in the Constitution?
No Religious Tests:
Article VI says: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” In practice this prohibition was often violated, and even today there are unenforceable prohibitions in state constitutions against atheists holding public office. If America is a Christian Nation, why weren’t public offices limited to Christians, or even particular types of Christians? Why weren’t public offices limited solely to monotheists or to theists?
Sundays Excepted Clause:
Some take hope from Article 1, Section 7, Clause 2 which gives the president an extra day to deal with a bill from Congress if the 10th day falls on Sunday — known as the “Sundays Excepted Clause.” Is this an establishment of the Christian sabbath and thus of Christianity? No, it was a recognition of the fact that many Christians wouldn’t work on this day and that an extra day may be needed. It must be noted that at this time, the government continued to deliver mail on Sundays.
At the end of the Constitution, the date is prefaced with “in the year of our Lord.” Is this an expression of the fundamental role played by Jesus and Christianity in the Constitution? No, this was just the standard dating convention. It’s no more significant than using BC and AD when writing dates now. At most, it’s an example of the cultural importance of Christianity at the time; it’s not a sign of the political or philosophical importance of Christianity to the Constitution. Read More…
Oaths and Affirmations:
The Constitution requires elected official take oaths or affirmations before serving; was this understood as an example of the importance of swearing an oath to God? No — if it was meant to get people to swear an oath to God because only theists could be trusted, the Constitution would have said so (and would not have banned religious tests for public office). Oaths can be taken on more than the Bible and God; the choice of using an affirmation signals that religious oaths were not privileged.
First Amendment: Free Exercise:
The first amendment to the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion. It does not protect just the free exercise of Christianity nor does it suggest that Christianity and Christians should be have special protections and privileges. The authors used the term “religion,” meaning that all religions have exactly the same status before the law and the government. If they had thought that Christianity were special, they’d have said so; instead, they treated it like every other religion.
First Amendment: No Establishment:
The first amendment to the Constitution also prohibits the government from “establishing” any religion. The meaning of “establishment” is hotly debated and some insist that it merely means that the government can’t create a national religion. This reading is too narrow and would make the clause all but meaningless. To have relevance, it must mean that the government can’t favor, endorse, promote, or support any religions just as it can’t hinder any: it must remain as neutral as possible.
We the People:
The Ameican Constitution begins with the phrase “We the People,” and its significance cannot be overlooked. This establishes that sovereign power rests with the people and that all government power and authority derives from the consent of the people. It’s a repudiation of older European ideas that governments are established by God and derive their power or authority from God (for example, the divine right of kings). It’s also thus a repudiation of the Christian Right’s arguments today.
The American Constitution is Godless, Religionless:
No matter how hard conservative apologists for the Christian Right try, they cannot locate endorsements of religion, God, theism, or Christianity in the Constitution. At no point does the Constitution exhibit anything less than a fully secular, godless character. The American Constitution was a novel experiment in the creation of a secular government on the basis of popular sovereignty and democratic principles. All of this would be undermined by the Christian Right.
God, Deism, and the Authors of a Secular Constitution:
The authors of the American Constitution were not atheists, though some might be regarded as little more than atheists by self-righteous religious moralizers today. Many of the authors were deists. Among those who were Christian, few seem to have held same sort of religious beliefs common with conservative evangelicals in America today. The Christian Right would claim them as religious brethren, but the two groups are far too dissimilar for that.
Why does the Christian Right seek to make a big deal out of the religious beliefs of the authors of the Constitution, though? They seem to think that if these men can be identified as devout Christians, then it follows that the Constitution is a Christian document which embodies Christian principles and doctrines (as defined by the Christian Right, of course). This does not follow, however. A Christian is every bit as capable of creating a godless, secular document as an Deist is.
Indeed, the fact that many of these men were devout Christians (even if not in the way that the Christian Right imagines) bolsters the case of contemporary secularists because it makes the absence of overt religious and Christian language all the more glaring. If they had mostly been atheists, the non-religious language would be expected and unremarkable. Yet because they were religious and steeped in Christian education, the absence of Christian language and references must be read as both deliberate and purposeful.
What might that purpose have been? To establish a secular government, untainted by the many problems which sectarian divisions, religious violence, and Christian bigotry had inflicted on European nations. For the most part the authors of the Constitution succeeded. Why does the Christian Right work so hard to undermine and undo what America’s founders accomplished?