Secularization of the Constitution

Secularization of the Constitution


In 1787, the work began to create an official constitution that would permanently serve as the basis of the government of the United States. By this time, states had their own constitutions, and the search was on for one of those states to use as an example, a model to base the nation’s constitution on. Among the choices to use as the best model was:

Massachusetts’ whose constitution extended equal protection of the law, and the right to hold public office only to Christians,Catholics were not included unless they took a specific oath saying they would not listen to the pope; New York’s’ constitution which extended equality to Jews, but not Catholics; the constitution of Delaware, which required all public office holders to publicly swear that they believed in the Trinity; and South Carolinas’ constitution, which actually established Protestantism as the official state-sponsored religion; as well as the constitution of Maryland which guaranteed full civil rights to Protestants and Catholics, but no Jews, deists, or freethinkers. The only catholic signer of the declaration of independence, Charles Carroll, never even considered giving civil rights to non-Christians.

It was obvious that Christianity and arguing about Christianity was well established among the people of the early nation. However, the framers of the constitution picked none of these states constitutions, as the model for the national document. The state they picked as the model was Virginia. A state that officially declared religious freedom was best, including atheism. That’s the one that the founding fathers wanted to base America on (Donovan).

Did that mean that the founders were hostile to religion or even to Christianity? No, it means that they recognized, given the multiplicity of religions in the new nation and the distressing history of governmental oppression in the name of religion, that it would be better for them to leave the question alone. To avoid getting involved in a quagmire of competing religious loyalties, the government should remain neutral. Furthermore, it was a way of asserting the limited nature of government. The state had no powers that were not enumerated in the constitution. By not mentioning religion, the founders were not expressing animosity against religion, but rather keeping the sacred matter of religion from the reach of government. In the words of Madison, the constitution was not to grant “a shadow of right in the general government to inter-meddle with religion.”

They wrote a secular constitution because they believed government should not be involved in matters of conscience. However, because the government obviously needed to set the requirements for public office, the authors addressed themselves to this question. Public office would be independent of religious belief or the lack thereof.

This provision of Article VI did not create the separation of church and state, but it went a long way to minimize in the new nation the possibility of the religious strife and oppression that had been known in the history of the western world. Apparently the majority of Americans were satisfied with the constitution’s virtual silence on the question of religion, for it was ratified on the larger question of the freedom of citizens, including the freedom of religion. Consequently, the founders drew up a list guaranteeing particular freedoms: the bill of rights(Flowers 16-17).

Kramnik and Moore on the Secularization of the Constitution

Within the past decade well-credentialed scholars have asserted that the United States during the founding period was not a Christian nation. Two of these scholars are Kranmick and Moore in their book The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State.

Authors Kramnik and Moore explicitly write their defense as a respectful appeal to the Christian community the United States to re-evaluate the history of “church-state” separation on the United States, and to re-consider the paramount value of that concept to the integrity of both the government and their own religious faith.They begin their moral defense with a close examination of the historic and cultural context in which the constitution was written. According to their presented evidence, it was not by mistake that there was no mention of God or Christ in the constitution; rather, it was the explicit intention of the founders to create a secular government. The authors write:“it is not true that the founders designed a Christian commonwealth, which was then eroded by secular humanist and liberals; the reverse is true. The framers erected a godless federal constitution structure, which was then undermined as God entered the first U.S currency in 1863, then the federal mail service in 1912, and finally the pledge of allegiance in 1954.”

Kramnic and Moore further explain the emergence of a godless constitution in the summer of 1787. They view it as the progeny of an essentially godless nation, which they document with two kinds of evidence. One is the proof text of the people arguing for the torpor of American religion during the founding period: the claim in Crevecoeur’s Letter from an American Farmer (1782) that “religious indifferences is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other.” In fact there were numerous complaints about American religious “indifference” during the second half of the eighteenth century: in 1760, for example, Lutheran ministers in Pennsylvania were alarmed about the “dangerous indifferentism” among their flocks, in 1773 Nicholas Collin, a Swedish pastor in new jersey, was distressed that his people were “indifferent and scattered”, in 1797, the Presbyterian president of Dickinson college, Charles Nisbet, deplored the “indifference of religious opinions” that he encountered in central Pennsylvania.

The second kind of evidence that Kramnic and Moore use to prove that Americans during the founding period were not “securely Christian” or “strongly anything else relating to a religious persuasion” was the statistics that only about 10-15 percent of the population were church members.Kramnic and Mooreconverted the founding period’s putative mass of unchurched Americans into a godless host whose existence demonstrates that the new republic was not a Christian nation. The authors cited statistics that purport to show that the vast majority of Americans at the time of the founding were “unchurched,” that is, they were not members of any Christian church. The “churched” remnant was estimated at around 10 percent. Since so few Americans were “real,” practicing Christians, there was nothing nodenying that the United States during the founding period was a non Christian nation.

The Constitution, Religiousness andGod

The statesmen who wrote the constitution mentioned religion only one place in the document, Article VI. They wrote a prohibition. Article VI, as a part of the requirement that state and federal officeholders take an oath or make an affirmation to support the constitution, say: “but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Contrary to the opinion of Kranmick and Moore that the constitution is godless document because it does not mention God, Hutson(113), presented an argument that goes to reflect the god-fullness of the constitutions. According to Hutson(114), the word “Lord” appears in article 7, which can be taken as a synonym for God. The author adds that article 1, section 7, possesses an even greater problem for Kranmick and Moore credibility. Article 1, section 7 states that “if any bill shall not be returned by the president within ten days (Sunday excepted) after is shall have been presented to him, the same shall be a law, in like manner, as if he had signed it, unless the congress by their adjournment prevents its rerun, in which case it shall not be law.” This language, Hutson(114) argues does nothing less than write the Christian Sabbath into the constitution by presuming that the president will not work on Sunday. The recognition of the sanctity of the Sabbath in official documents therefore furnishes the strongest proofs that the United States was truly a Christian nation.

Locke’s Basic Position on Role of Religion in Society

In what was his most controversial work, A Letter Concerning Tolerance (1689), Locke brings his conception of political society to bear on the issue of religious tolerance and church-state relations.

The argument of placing religious opinions in a totally private realm is analogous to Locke’s argument that persons cannot cede their natural liberty to a despot: “for no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inwards and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.” As political liberty is grinded in natural law, so is religious liberty(Stiltner 23-24).With regards to toleration, Locke’s political thinking was committed to a natural rights defense of liberty of conscious against the claims of all forms of political authority, including representative government. This defense necessitated an absolute separation between the sphere of religion, which was defined by its concernment for the eternal salvation of the individual’s souls, and the sphere of politics, whose province extended only to men’s estates and civil interests (Stiltner 24).

Locke’s Letterwith regards to toleration realigned the social relationship and broad moral between political order and religious toleration (Hashemi 79).  Staking out a strong position that it is important to differentiate and distinguish “the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other,” Lockemake a case for a separation between state and church as well as freedom of religious conscience. “true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind,” he write,” it cannot be compelled to the belief of any thing by outward force.” Thus, to Locke, the role for religion in the common good is to remind persons of their duties and, in so doing, to facilitate their participation in the society (Stiltner 25).

Locke come to these new religiopoliticalstandpoints by pondering on the connection that exists between government and religion. According to Stiltner(26), “the main argument of the letter does have to rest on its distinctively Christian foundations.” Locke’s contention is not only founded on Christianity but more significantly is founded on aunquestionably distinctive and different reading of Christianity. Locke shifted the moral compass of Christianity in the direction of peaceful persuasion of the mind, religious liberty,the fundamental moral equality of protestant churches and believers, and tolerance. This different reinterpretation of religion functions as a decisive precondition to furthering a new political theory of state-society relations(Hashemi 79).

Locke’s defense of religious toleration is remarkably foresighted for his time, though not complete. The social norm of toleration is not only a natural right of individuals, but one of the practices necessary for social harmony. These necessary practices set the limits of religious toleration for Locke: “no opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate.”As western societies have become acclimated to pluralism, the scope of opinions considered contrary to the good of society has narrowed considerably. For instance, Locke placed atheism, Catholicism, and Islam under this rubric; whereas few citizens of liberal’s societies would say this today. Locke placed these belief systems beyond the scope of toleration because he considered them intolerant of others and thus a threat to social order.

TheThought of Jefferson and Madison on the Secular Constitution

Thomas Jefferson andJames Madison were for a separation of the state and religion.  They were adamant that there should be a wall between church and state, and that wall must be kept high and impregnable.As the opening of the declaration of independence suggests, the influence of deism was acute. Thomas Jefferson, the prime author of the declaration, wanted to put disestablishment at the heart of the revolution. He and James Madison were fellow campaigners against Anglican establishment in their native state of Virginia. It was largely through them that the ideal of the separation of church and state became central to the national ideology (Hobson 164-165). In 1776, when Virginia began debating a new constitution, Jefferson and Madison were both adamant that it should go further than vague Lockeantolerations: it should guarantee full religious liberty, which entailed disestablishing the Anglican Church.James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, drawing on the negative experience of religion and state in Europe thought that the only way to prevent violence in America was to separate church and state, (spiritual) authority and (secular) power. The writings of Thomas Jefferson were sharply focused on one theme, taming the abuse of power justified by faith (Zeig 417). Madison was equally firm in repudiating clerical coercion.

The two were proponents of separating the church and the state. This simply meant that the government should be secular; and the place for religion was in people’s homes, churches, synagogues, and mosques. They considered this separation not an expression of hostility against religion, but instead portrayed the importance of government being strictly secular. James Madison, one of the founders, said: “the purpose of the separation of church and state is to keep forever form these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries (Chemerinsky 104).” The two were also in opposition to any state subsidy for churches.Jefferson spoke of the unconsciousability of taxing people to support religions that they do not believe in (Chemerinsky 105). Madison said: “the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment.” Therefore, according to Madison and Jefferson, it violates a person’s freedom of conscience to force him to support religions that he or she does not accept. Madison and Jefferson’s words established clearly that liberty of personal condition requires freedom from coercion to support religion, and this meant that the government can compel no aid to fund it(Chemerinsky 105).For Jefferson and Madison, and their spiritual friends and allies, religious freedom, that is, freedom from constraint or coercion of any kind enforced in the name of God, was the crux of the struggle for personal and political freedom in general(Zeig 417).

State Constitutional Practices

The fundamental rights and liberties of religion crafted in the early republic came to ready application in the unfolding of the American experiment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Consistent with the doctrine of federalism that informed the united stated constitution in general and the first amendment religion clauses in particular, primary political responsibility for religion and the church was left to state government (Witte 405). By 1833, the constitution of every state guaranteed liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion for all, and many included further guarantees of pluralism, equality, separationism, and disestablishment. The most intrusive and overt forms of religious establishment and state control of religion fell away. A plurality of religious sects came to flourish in the states, many supporting their own religious schools, charities, clubs and other voluntary associations.

Vestiges of religious establishment and discrimination remained in place among some of the states, with abridgments of religious rights and liberties becoming an ineradicable part of the American constitutional tradition. The general guarantees of disestablishment and free exercise of religion in the state constitutions did not foreclose officials from supporting religious believers and religious bodies, especially those that were Christian. The promulgation of religious laws and policies gave rise to great debates in state legislatures across the United States and the enforcement of religious laws in courts occasioned some vitriolic dissenting opinions. Arguments for these laws and policies were often framed in classic terms of puritanism and civic republicanism which saw the laws and policies as appropriate forms of non-preferential state aid to, and accommodation of the civic and evangelic sectarian religions of the nation; while those i sounded in classic terms of evangelical theology andenlightenment politics and saw the law and policies as vestiges of traditional religious establishments and compromises of the ideals of separationismand voluntarism(Witte 407).


Incorporation was an early division of responsibility for the American experiment, leaving principal political responsibility for religion to state governments with only occasional involvement by the federal judiciary, whichchanged abruptly in the 1940’s.The incorporation doctrine made religion clauses binding on both the federal and stated governments. It allowed the court for the first time to review state and local policies on religion and the church. Regarding the federalist premises of 1787 to be modified by the fourteenth amendment due process cause, the Supreme Court set out to create a uniform constitutional law of religious rights and liberties that would be enforceable throughout the nation. In more than 100 cases ruled on after the year 1940, the Supreme Court took firm control of the American experiment (Witte 410).


In conclusion, the constitution of the United States is a secular document that makes no reference to God or to Christians, other than Article VII’s reference to “in the year of our lord”. The farmers made a decision to keep religion and politics in separate spheres. As Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore note, the omission of God was not an oversight, but rather the outcome of a long debate between Christians who wanted God referenced and those who opted to keep politics and religion separate.  Nevertheless, Kramnick and Moore concede that the “political convictions of the men who struggled to ratify a godless constitution were not products of personal godlessness. Far from it. Almost everyone who participated in the debates about the constitution shared a concern about the health of religion.” Roger Williams, a devout puritan, played a key role in persuading others to adopt a document that would maintain a healthy separation between spiritual and worldly matters. The bloody conflicts that surrounded the protestant reformation, martin Luther’s effort to reform the Catholic Church, and the birth of the Anglican Church were fresh on the minds of many of the founders.

The constitution went further and through the First Amendment that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievance.”  This establishment clause of the first amendment,” congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” was aimed at ending the conflict among Christian denominations, especially the outright persecution of minority sects such as Baptists. The amendment ensured that America would never have an established church, like the church of England. Although the founders made certain there would never be a national church, scholar like Hatch and Noll argued that the founders understood from the very (Kramnick and Moore) beginning that the new country was to be a Christian nation. Christianity, in its various denominational forms, were to become the unofficial religion of the nation.


Works Cited

Chemerinsky, Erwin. Conservative Assault on the Constitution. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Donovan, Paul. Happily Godless: A Young Adult’s Guide to Atheism. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2007.

Flowers, Ronald Bruce. That Godless Court?: Supreme Court Decisions on Church-state Relationships. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Hashemi, Nader. Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hobson, Theo. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013.

Hutson, James H. Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic. Lexington Books, 2003.

Kramnick , Isaac and Laurence R Moore. The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Stiltner, Brian. Religion and the Common Good: Catholic Contributions to Building Community in a Liberal Society. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999.

Witte, John, Jr. and Joel A Nichols. Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment. Westview Press, 2010.

Witte, John, Jr. “Essential Rights and Liberties of Religion in the American Constitutional Experiment.” Notre Dame Law Review 71.3 (1996): 371-445. <http://scholarship>.

Zeig, Jeffrey K. The Evolution of Psychotherapy. Psychology Press, 1987.

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