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.


  1. But, didn’t the pilgrims come to this country to escape religious persecution among other reasons? If so, what sense would it make for founding fathers to include a religious basis for the Constitution and then include the Amendment regarding separation of church and state? I believe this country was originally settled by more Christians than other denominations due to happenstance which brought about the misconception that this is primarily a Christian country. Christians can’t seem to get along and agree on what Christianity means or there wouldn’t be so many different factions and infighting in this one religion. Other religions have always been here, in lesser numbers until recent years, but recognized and accepted as American citizens.

    I recently received a forwarded E-mail rant about President Obama’s release of a Muslim stamp. When I researched the subject I found that Bush originally released a Muslim stamp as a way to accept and celebrate the Ramadan holiday. This E-mail was merely another covert way to accuse President Obama of being of Muslim faith as if it were illegal and treasonous. Andre Carson is Muslim and is doing a great job supporting his constituents in Indiana. This old basically Baptist will continue supporting and voting for Rep. Carson.

    There is nothing Godless in the Constitution or the Amendments; the lack of including any diety in the writing is not anti-religios, it allows us to think and believe as we choose without restriction or fear of legal repercussions.

  2. Judging from their history shortly after arriving to the New World, the Pilgrims weren’t so much interested in escaping religious persecution entirely; but merely in ensuring that they were the ones doing the persecuting.

  3. I have to agree with you about that Doug. I do not Remember the Alamo nor do I celebrate Columbus Day. Today I am proudly wearing my tee shirt with the picture of four elderly Native Americans and the statement above and below, “HOMELAND SECURITY” and “Fighting terrorism since 1492”.

  4. Pagan Religions appear to be less hateful than monolithic religions, believing in the Earth as a living organism and mother to life creates people respectful to ones habitat.
    Believing in the Sun as a god makes more since than a brutal, psychotic, jealous deity that always needs money.
    After all, one can see the Sun, feel it warm them, watch it grow their crops, create the rain…ect.
    We need more politicians that worship the Sun and the environment it creates for us, and has long before the parasite called man appeared on the scene.
    Just maybe, we can than start to harness the Energy it creates…with more government funding like the oil and coal corporations receive… even with their mega profits.

  5. Mark, forgive me if you have already read what I am about to suggest, but John Assmann, a German archaeologist, has suggested that biblical monotheism disrupted the political and cultural stability of the world by disrupting the pagan system. Of course, relationships weren’t exactly the peaceable kingdom before then, but that’s part of what he is saying. Interested readers can learn more by reading an article by Richard Wolin, entitled “Biblical Blame Shift” in the April 19, 2013 edition of The Chronicle Review (of the Chronicle of Higher Education). In that discussion, Mr. Wolin points out some rather glaring problems with Assmann’s analysis and his belief in the strengths of paganism which has been read by many as being anti-Semitic.

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