Skip to main content

When I started to write this series of diaries, one of my intentions was to debunk some of the nonsense about our nation's history that has found its way into the national discourse. Two weeks ago, chrislove published a diary, Crackpot "Historian" David Barton: The Constitution quotes the Bible "verbatim", with links to Right Wing Watch's David Barton page, and I knew exactly what I was going to do with the Constitution this time around. Especially since I get to discuss the whole issue of whether we live in a Christian nation as I look at it.  

According to the framers?  Um, no.  Godless, and beyond that, mostly religion-free, as each use of "religion" or "religious" is accompanied very closely by the words "no" or "not." Come with me below the squiggle to see how this worked.

The debate about the Constitution and its Christian/Biblical roots has been going on since the 1770s. As Isaac Kramnick and  R. Laurence Moore write in their magisterial polemic, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (1995, rev. 2006),* there are two parties in this debate:

the party of the godless Constiution and of godless politics
which they (and I) represent, and
the party of religious correctness, [which] maintains that the United States was established as a Christian nation by Christian people, with the Christian religion assigned a central place in guiding the nation's destiny.
 Examples of the party of religious correctness (yes, snark) are David Barton, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the now-apparently-silent Ralph Reed.

Kramnick and Moore explain that Americans in the age of the Revolution weren't strongly religious.  In fact, the historian Eric Slauter, in The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (2009)* refers to the decade as the "Godless 1780s." It seems that although the same number of books had "God" in their titles as in previous decades, so many more books were published during the decade that the percentage declined from 13% during the 1750s to about 2%.  Here's how this worked:

This was the bestselling American book of the 17th century: the captivity narrative written by Mary Rowlandson about her experiences in King Philip's War and published in 1682Photobucket
and here's an edition published in 1773

1682: Soveraignty [sic] and Goodness of God; 1773: A Narrative of the Captivity, Suffering and Removes. Incidentally, the 1773 title was the title the book was published under in London in 1682, but I digress.

Accordingly (Kramnick and Moore again), the Constitution is a godless document, and its neglect of religion was obvious to everyone involved in writing it.  It was also bitterly attacked for this, but the advocates of a secular state won, and won so definitively that the campaign to discredit the Constitution as irreligious has been "underremembered."

We can see this VERY clearly in the preample to the Consitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Who doth ordain and establish this Constitution? We the People! Not any of the religious deities David Barton wants to imagine were involved.  This is a departure from the Declaration of Independence  ("Nature and Nature's God") and from the Articles of Confederation ("The Great Governor of the World') AND from many of the existing state constitutions.  Intentional.

Not, of course that people haven't tried. The ratifying convention in Connecticut rejected an effort to add a Christian conception of politics to the preamble. Here is the text of the so-called "Christian" Amendment, first considered in 1863, at the height of the Civil War:

We, the People of the United States [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all], in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Note that this deletes "provide for the common defence." The  House of Representatives considers it a few times between 1864 and 1874, but it went nowhere.

No mention of a deity.  No reference to the Bible (I guess David Barton thinks "verbatim" means something beside what the rest of us think it means). No reference to ANYTHING religious, with the exception of this, from Article VI.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Really surprising.  Eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests in their constitutions, and, even in Rhode Island, only Protestants could hold office.  The two exceptions? Virginia, where the Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) specified no religious test, and New York.  

and this.

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names,
The Year of Our Lord. Anno Domini (or A.D.).  That's it. A negation, and a matter of form.  Yes, Godless, or, if you prefer, God-free.

But, of course, that's not really it, because the Constitution was amended within four years after it was ratified, and religion is mentioned in the first set of amendments.  Incidentally, there's a terrific new book on the Ratification process -- Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010).* That the Constitution would be amended immediately was not a sure thing when the Constitution was sent to the states, and, in fact, five states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut) ratified the unamended constitution without even calling for any amendments. HOWEVER, everybody realized that a country that didn't include Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina and New York would be a weak one.

To a great extent, we have Massachusetts to thank for our Bill of Rights, because when that ratifying convention was seated, the anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution had a majority. The Federalists tried to delay vote by debating the Constitution one clause at a time as appeals made to both sides, and Sam Adams, by now a leading Anti-federalist was swayed when the Boston artisans demonstrated in favor of the Constitution. Eventually, the moderate Anti-federalists were won over by a Federalist pledge to consider a Bill of Rights.  Once the other states who had not yet ratified the Constitution saw this, every subsequent ratification convention found the majority willing to concede on amendments.

It was thus that one of the first actions of the First Congress (conducted without North Carolina and Rhode Island, who had not yet ratified the Constitution) was to vote in favor of twelve amendments, ten of which we now venerate as the Bill of Rights. Again, entirely Godless, except for the First Amendment.

It's always interesting to see which part of the First Amendment gets the most attention at various points in history.  We live in an unusual time, actually, because the section that we really paid attention to last autumn was the part about the right of the people peaceably to assemble, thanks to the Occupy movement.  Usually it's speech, which will most likely be the next part we pay attention too as we prepare to get rid of Citizens United, but in a couple of weeks we'll review some serious violations of the "of the press" part when we look at the 18th century version of the PATRIOT Act, and today we'll look at the mentions of religion.

So here it is.

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 grievances.
Even though several states still had established churches.  The last to disestablish was Massachusetts, in 1833.

Yes, Protestant Christians represent a plurality of Americans, and a definite majority when the Constitution was written, but the people who wrote the Constitution were very aware of this and decided, almost despite this, that the country would be religiously neutral.  Game, set and match.

* The links to books are either to or to's new-used page on the book.  This is in deference to lightbulb's series of diaries, Confessions of a Retail Worker and it lets you decide what kind of company you want to order from.

6:58 PM PT: I edited the last paragraph to make it a lot more explicit than it had been.  It doesn't change the meaning of it or the diary at all.

Originally posted to Dave in Northridge on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 02:29 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Street Prophets .

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Republished to Street Prophets. nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, BeninSC
  •  And There's Jefferson's Letter to Thomas Cooper (5+ / 0-)

    1814 on the idea that the English Common Law, that our system is based in part on, was based in Christianity.

    For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law, or lex non scripta, and commences that of the statute law, or Lex Scripta. This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first christian king of the Heptarchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here, then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 02:58:37 PM PDT

  •  Shores of Tripoli (5+ / 0-)

    There was a treaty, which a minor Founding Father called Joel Barlow played a part in.  The treaty the Senate passed, having to do with Barbary pirates and the shores of Tripoli, said:

    ...the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...
    Ratified unanimously by the US Senate.

    Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

    by Land of Enchantment on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 03:57:58 PM PDT

    •  Exactly (4+ / 0-)

      Since this was about the relative absence of religion from the Constitution, I didn't address  "Christian nation" as completely as I might have, but yes, this is indeed the 1796-97 Treaty with Tripoli.  I'm not sure if I'll come back to this in this series, but I'll discuss it at some point.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 04:02:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Unfortunately (4+ / 0-)

      If we cite this treaty, we should also consider treaties with Indian Nations--treaties which, under the Constitution, are the same as other international treaties--and here we find the idea of the United States as a Christian nation is expressed and the United States agrees to provide Indian nations with Christian missionaries.

      •  and then we abrogate those (4+ / 0-)

        I'll have stuff to say about Worcester v Georgia when I get to Indian Removal.  I'll probably be vicious then too.

        -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

        by Dave in Northridge on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 04:57:55 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  looking forward to that - and what about the (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ojibwa, terrypinder

          Discovery Doctrine? It traces back to a papal bulleting in 1452. and that doctrine has been used and introduced u introduced in 1823 by the decisions made by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall when they ruled on  ruled on Johnson and Graham’s Lessee versus McIntosh.

          If the constitution was godless and non Christian, how can those decisions of the court have been constitutional, as they are based on the old Discovery Doctrine?

          Ojibwa wrote once:

          The Court found that the Doctrine of Discovery gave sovereignty of Indian lands to England and then to the United States. Indian nations, under this Doctrine, have a right of occupancy to the land. Christian nations, such as England and the United States, have superior rights over the inferior culture and inferior religion of the Indians. According to the Court, Indians have been compensated for their lands by having the gift of Christianity bestowed upon them.
  •  Another Source--Susan Jacoby's work (3+ / 0-)

    First, thank you for this post.

    Second, let me commend to you and the dKos readership Susan Jacoby's excellent 2004 book, Freethinkers, A  History of American Secularism.

    It's in paperback and and ebook and can be found at Amazon:    

    It's a terrific piece of research and I strongly recommend it.

    •  I've read it (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It was a terrific book, and I can recommend it with as much enthusiasm as you have, Jim.  Her reworking of Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism didn't work quite as well, but it was still a bracingly good read.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 06:05:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Churchgoing in America (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge, terrypinder

    In his book 'Jerusalem, The Biography'  Simon Sebag Montefiore has this almost throwaway statement.

    In 1776 some 10 percent of Americans were church-goers; by 1815, it was a quarter; by 1914 it was a half
    Unfortunately I cant see from the references how he grounds this statement.

    The claim comes in the section of the book on Warder Cresson, U.S. Consul-General of Syria and Jerusalem. Appointed in 1844 he believed the Second Coming was at hand in 1847 and acted accordingly. In this he was an American of his time.

    The point made is that the establishment of the USA came between two evangelical revivals (The First and Second great awakenings).  

    Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

    by saugatojas on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 11:20:35 PM PDT

    •  Kramnick and Moore concur (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Their authority appears to be Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who observed in 1780 that

      religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other.
      It has been said that the Revolution "obliterated" the First Great Awakening, so it stands to reason that churchgoing increased during the nineteenth century (we know that church-building did).

      I don't know that "real" statistics exist for the nineteenth century either, so yes, I know it seems like an odd set of statistics, but I can't disprove it.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Thu Apr 26, 2012 at 07:17:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  just a comment but... (0+ / 0-)

    So why is it our laws are rife with laws that "respect religion" over common law?

  •  You should make a comparison (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    with the Confederate Constitution, which does reference God explicitly, and which the Confederates were at some pains to explain was the true Original Intent of the Founders, unlike the tyrannical Yankee-dominated Constitution. Constitutional Originalists know better than to say this out loud today, but they are constantly bringing up provisions of the Confederate Constitution, such as the line-item veto or the provision forbidding central government expenditures on infrastructure, as instances of Originalism.

    Glenn Beck's book on the subject, The Original Argument: The Federalists' Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century, makes it abundantly clear that he means the original Original Constitution without any of those pesky amendments. Not the Bill of Rights, and certainly not the Reconstruction Amendments.

    Busting the Dog Whistle code.

    by Mokurai on Thu Apr 26, 2012 at 06:06:54 AM PDT

    •  I might have, but you did it for me. (0+ / 0-)

      and here, in the Preamble, is the sole reference to the deity in the Confederate Constitution:

      We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.
      It sure helped, didn't it.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Thu Apr 26, 2012 at 07:20:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site