On Constitution Day, Celebrate That Document For What It Really Says

Whenever I attend Religious Right meetings like the annual Values Voter Summit, I hear a lot of talk about the U.S. Constitution.

I wish the far-right activists who talk about that document so much would take a little time to actually read it – especially the sections that deal with religion. Today, the observance of Constitution Day, would be a good time to do that. (The Constitution was approved and signed by the delegates of the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787, so tomorrow is the actual anniversary.)

Religion is mentioned only once in the Constitution as originally drafted and once in the Bill of Rights (the Constitution’s first 10 amendments). Neither mention provides aid and comfort to the Religious Right.

Consider the reference to religion in Article VI. It states: “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.” (Emphasis mine.)

Take another look at those words: No religious test. That doesn’t mean you can’t be forced to take an exam about religion before assuming public office. It means the people who seek federal office can’t be compelled to believe certain things about religion as a condition of holding that office.

This provision is in there because some states used to do that. They limited public office to Christians, Protestants or at the very least people who professed belief in God.

Sorry, Religious Right, but the Constitution does not establish a 'Christian nation.'

Charles Pinckney, a 29-year-old delegate to the Constitutional Convention from South Carolina, wanted to ensure that the federal Constitution contained no such limitations. There was some opposition to Pinckney’s proposal – one North Carolina delegate fumed about the possibility of “pagans, deists and Mahometans” getting elected to office – but the provision was retained.

James Madison was a big fan of Pinckney’s handiwork. In the Federalist Papers, he called Pinckney’s provision one of the highlights of the Constitution.

Obviously, language stating that people of all faiths and none have the right to seek and hold public office cuts against the “Christian nation” idea so beloved by the Religious Right.

Now let’s take a look at the religion clauses of the First Amendment. They state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

The Religious Right would have us believe that a provision like this, which specifically states a policy of “no preference” toward religion and guarantees religious freedom for all, somehow supports the idea of a “Christian nation.” It doesn’t; in fact, it cuts against that concept.

The Constitution is also notable for what it doesn’t say. The words “Christian,” “God” or “Jesus Christ” appear nowhere in the document. Ours is a secular Constitution, much to the dismay of the Religious Right. (For more info, check out this out this AU pamphlet that debunks the “Christian nation” myth.)

In the face of these facts, some members of the “Christian nation” crowd have resorted to truly absurd arguments. Earl Taylor Jr., who runs Heritage Academy, a charter school in Arizona that is the subject of a new AU lawsuit, once penned an article titled “Parallel Concepts between the U.S. Constitution & the Bible.” It attempts to prove that the Bible inspired the Constitution – but such links exist only in Taylor’s mind.

In the column, Taylor claims that the passage from the Constitution’s preamble stating, “In order to form a more perfect union…” comes from Genesis 2:24, which reads, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

A bit of reach there, no?

As we observe Constitution Day, you can do more than celebrate our foundational document. You can debunk the specious claims made by Religious Right activists who, as much as they claim to revere that document, don’t actually understand it.