Tomorrow is Constitution Day, which marks the signing of the Constitution by the framers on Sept. 17, 1787. In honor of the day, here are five fast facts about how the Constitution deals with religion and government to keep in mind:
1. The body of the Constitution contains no references to God, Jesus Christ, Christianity or any other religion: It was common for government documents of Western nations in the 18th century to contain references to God and the Christian religion. America’s founders chose a different path. As we noted on the blog last year for Constitution Day, our governing charter is wholly secular, a framework that leaves decisions about religion in the hands of the individual. What a remarkable achievement! We should be justly proud of it.
2. Religious leaders of the time knew full well that the new U.S. Constitution was secular – and some of them didn’t like it. When the text of the Constitution started to circulate, some conservative religious leaders read its secular language and went ballistic. They attacked the “godless” charter in sermons, with some even suggesting it would lead to our nation’s downfall. Theocrats and advocates of an officially “Christian nation” have always been with us, but when the Constitution was drafted, their views failed to carry the day.
3. Article VI of the Constitution contains an important, if often overlooked, religious freedom guarantee. When people think of religious freedom in the Constitution, they tend to focus on the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which was appended to the Constitution in 1791. But at the end of Article VI, you will find language stating, “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This means anyone can hold federal office in America – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Humanist, etc. The provision, which was the handiwork of delegate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, was incredibly progressive for the times and is further evidence debunking the Religious Right’s “Christian nation” myth.
4. Familiar statements of civil religion have nothing to do with the Constitution. Concepts like “In God We Trust” being stamped on money, the phrase being used as a national motto and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were not endorsed by the founders; they are of much more recent vintage. The Pledge of Allegiance, originally written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, was secular. “Under God” was added in 1954. “In God We Trust” first appeared on money in northern states during the Civil War and was not codified for use on all currency until 1955. “In God We Trust” was adopted as the national motto in 1956. (So, what was going on in the 1950s that brought all of this about? America’s epic struggle with “godless communism” in the Soviet Union.)
5. James Madison wrote the First Amendment’s religious freedom provisions, but you can see the hand of Thomas Jefferson as well. James Madison is called the Father of the Constitution and was a primary author of the Bill of Rights. But when it comes to the First Amendment, Madison took inspiration from his ally Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson introduced his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1776, but it didn’t become law until Madison pushed it through the General Assembly in 1786. The law did two things: It stated that no Virginian “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” and it guaranteed all “shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” Those two key concepts – no forced support for religion and a guarantee of religious freedom – surfaced again in the First Amendment.
We know that the Constitution wasn’t perfect. It embraced slavery, and it left too many people out of the American experiment. That’s why we’ve had to occasionally amend it. But here’s what the framers got exactly right: secular government and church-state separation. Celebrate them both on Constitution Day.