Secular Foundation of the U.S. Government

The Religious Right claims that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and thus the government can promote those principles. The history of the U.S. Constitution shows, however, that the Founding Fathers intended to create a government that is neutral toward religion.

At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates did not open their sessions with prayer and never acted on a proposal to do so. And when a minority faction proposed that Christianity be recognized in the Constitution, their views were also rejected.

Instead, the document produced at the Constitutional Convention granted the federal government only limited powers – and did not include any power to enter the field of religion. As James Madison explained after the Constitution was drafted but prior to its ratification by the states: “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion.”

Nevertheless, at the state conventions held to ratify the Constitution, demands were made to have this lack of power enshrined in a specific constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. So Congress produced the First Amendment and sent it to the states for approval.

The result was a secular Constitution that does not contain the words God, Christianity, Jesus, Christ, or Judeo-Christian. The Constitution’s only references to religion serve to exclude it from the government, by providing that there shall be no law respecting an establishment of religion, no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no religious test for any public office.

This history led Philip Schaff, a distinguished American church historian of the nineteenth century, to write that the Constitution “is neither hostile nor friendly to any religion; it is simply silent on the subject, as lying beyond the jurisdiction of the general government.” Likewise, historian Charles A. Beard says the document “does not confer upon the Federal government any power whatever to deal with religion in any form or manner.”

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, explains that “the framers of the Constitution deliberately omitted any mention of God in order to assign supreme governmental power to ‘We the People.'”

Thus, they opposed the doctrine of the “divine right of kings,” which had enabled monarchs to wield absolute power in the name of God for centuries.

The framers intended that political power flow upward from the people, rather than downward from the heavens or those who claim to represent the heavens. As Robert Ingersoll said in the nineteenth century, they “endeavored to retire the gods from politics” and believed that “the people are the real and only rightful source of authority.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, in 1797 the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Treaty with Tripoli. That document was presented to the Senate by President John Adams, who in 1776 had served with Thomas Jefferson on the committee assigned to draft the Declaration of Independence.

The treaty contains the statement that “the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion. . . .” When considering this document, the Senate was composed of many persons who had participated in the Constitutional Convention and the state conventions that ratified the Constitution.

If they had thought the U.S. was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, there is no way they would have allowed such language in the treaty. Instead, the language never raised an eyebrow. This proves the secular basis of the Constitution.

The lack of a religious foundation for the Constitution was obvious at the time of its adoption and caused theocrats to revile the document. Church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer writes: “Omission of reference to God or Christ in the Constitution was bitterly criticized by some during the debates in the states during its ratification. Indeed, two Presbyterian church groups resolved not to vote at elections until the Constitution should be amended to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and Christ.”

Some theocrats, noting that many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were sympathetic to deism, alleged that the godless document was the product of a deistic conspiracy.

Moreover, from the earliest days of the nation until well into the twentieth century, efforts were made to amend the Constitution to include a recognition of God and Christianity. The repeated failure of those attempts led to a new strategy in recent years. It includes rewriting history and claiming that God and Christianity have always been in the Constitution.

As Robert Boston relates in his book Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State: “In the 19th century, fundamentalist clerics acknowledged the secular nature of the Constitution and called for amending it to include references to God or Christianity. Most Religious Right activists today have abandoned this strategy and in the face of all available evidence insist that the Constitution was somehow written to afford special protection to Christianity.”

It is imperative that the Founding Fathers’ precious gift of church-state separation be cherished and upheld. This principle has given Americans more religious freedom than is possessed by any other people. And it has enabled the U.S. to avoid the types of bloody religious conflicts that fill the pages of history and are still seen in many parts of the world.