Essay:God and the U.S. Constitution

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The evangelical argument[edit]

A common refrain among evangelical conservatives in the United States today is that America has drifted away from the Godly (specifically Christian) principles that the nation was founded on--principles that they believe are outlined in the Constitution. They argue that the country has drifted into a sort of atheist-secularist-humanist-materialist amoral swamp as a result, and they cite things like these as evidence:

  • America has developed a concept of separation of church and state, and the Establishment Clause has been interpreted by the courts in ways that prevent religion from being injected into public life
  • Teacher-led classroom prayer in public schools is a no-no
  • High school students have been forbidden to sing songs mentioning God at public school events
  • The Ten Commandments have been removed from federal court houses
  • "Judicial activism" is rampant (basically, there have been plenty of judicial decisions that they don't like)
  • A perceived general backlash against Christian ideals in public life has risen up over the last century or so.

They also maintain that to combat this decline in morality, Americans ought to once again embrace what the Founding Fathers "intended" when they wrote the Constitution. This type of argument often uses the phrases "The words separation of church and state never appear in the Constitution" and "God is mentioned on our coins and in the pledge of allegiance, so American is obviously a Christian nation. It's only natural that God is in the Constitution" or other similar verbiage. More extreme versions of the argument involve the idea that the very fabric of American democracy is Christianity-based, and a recent secularist movement has gained control of the government (or at least the judicial branch) and will eventually destroy America or at least bring the wrath of God down on the nation. Though there is considerable variation in the specific consequences of the perceived recent secularist takeover, many evangelical Christians want a return to the good ol' days when religion played a prominent role in public life, especially with regard to the Federal government, and they try to use a God-based Constitution (as written or intended by the Founding Fathers) as a justification for doing so.

My response[edit]

I'd be willing to concede that people go a little overboard with the separation of church and state thing (c'mon, banning songs because they have the word "God" in them? Really?), but as for the Constitution argument...sorry, but that just isn't gonna fly. In fact, I think it can be argued (and I plan to) that such reasoning is entirely counter to what made the Constitution such a cool accomplishment.

The Founders' intent[edit]

The Founders, despite representing a range of religious belief systems, intended government to be secular; they explicitly wanted to prevent religion from taking an active role in it, mostly because history (and experience) had taught them that when the clerics played around with the government, bad stuff happened (one example).

God in the Constitution[edit]

Evangelicals like to point out that the Founders made references to the Divine in the Declaration of Independence, and they are correct. However, when it came to creating a document that would form a basis for the system of government, the Founders conspicuously did not include God. In fact, the Constitution does not use the words "God" or "Jesus," instead preferring the emphasis to be on "The People" as the ultimate source of governmental power (notice the first three words of the constitution, and the fact that they're written in a huge extra-bold font).

When the Constitution was undergoing the ratification process, the people who could be considered the evangelical Christians of the period were complaining that the Constitution should not be ratified because they viewed it as Godless! Ironic, given the current attitude that we need to "return" to the ideals of what current conservative Christians view as a God-filled Constitution. In fact, the debate over whether the U.S. should have a religious component to its Constitution has continued throughout the nation's history. Various amendments trying to insert God and/or Jesus into the Constitution explicitly have been proposed at various times ever since the Constitution was written. None succeeded. The reason: for the most part, Americans have pretty much figured out that having a secular government is a pretty good idea. The current "Godly Constitution" argument presented by present-day evangelicals is a sign that they have pretty much given up on a Jesus amendment to the Constitution, so they're now trying to insist that he's already in it.

The 'No Religious Test' Clause[edit]

Article Six of the Constitution states that no religious test can be used as a qualification for government positions. That seems pretty tame now, but in the 1780s it was extraordinary, perhaps even unique to Western civilization. At the time, some people argued that with that clause in the Constitution, anyone-- ZOMG even a Jew, a Papist, or (gasp!) a Mohammedan--could be elected! However, the clause stayed in, and the Constitution got ratified. More evidence that the Founders wanted to get rid of religious distinctions when it came to governance.

The perceived secular takeover[edit]

Actually, it's religion that has made significant power strides in recent decades. It wasn't until the Cold War, when Americans found it useful to distinguish themselves from those evil mechanistic godless commies, that politicians started talking about boundless American faith, hope, idealism, etc., etc. The words "under God" were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s for such a purpose. Groups like the Christian Coalition didn't start to become a major political factor until the 1970s and 1980s.

Evangelicals like to talk about how they are a persecuted minority and that they have to crusade against the recent secularist surge, but in fact it's the other way around.

Why claiming that God is in the Constitution ruins what is awesome about the founding of America[edit]

One reason that the founding of the U.S. was such an accomplishment was that the Founders recognized that God and government shouldn't be intertwined--sort of a NOMA-esque idea applied to government. Designing a country in such a manner ensured that there wouldn't be problems (such as, you know, civil wars) caused by relentless government persecution of minority religions or favoritism toward majority religions. Need examples of what can happen when religion starts clouding the government picture? How about Exhibit A?