How the ‘Christian Nation’ Narrative Has Changed

How the ‘Christian Nation’ Narrative Has Changed July 5, 2013

I’ve noted before how the Christian right’s narrative about the Constitution and Christianity had changed so dramatically. The response from conservative preachers at the time of the Constitution was that it was a godless document that would bring down the wrath of God upon us all. Warren Throckmorton offers an excellent example in Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale, who wrote:

The second of these reasons is, the sinful character of our nation. 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.

He was hardly alone in this. During the state ratification conventions, many delegates complained about the fact that the Constitution contained no language about a national covenant with God and especially that, because of the No Religious Test clause of Article VI, actually allowed non-Christians to serve (not to mention the wrong kind of Christians; much of the furor was over the fact that “papists” could hold office). Historians Isaac Kramnick and Lawrence Moore offered many 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?”

More specific fears were clearly at work here. The absence of religious tests, it was feared, would open up the national government to control by Jews, Catholics, and Quakers. The Reverend David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate in North Carolina, worried that the Constitution now offered an invitation to “Jews and pagans of every kind” to govern us. Major Thomas Lusk, a delegate in Massachusetts, denounced Article 6 of the Constitution and shuddered “at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists, and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” A delegate in North Carolina waved a pamphlet that depicted the possibility that the pope of Rome might be elected president. Calming himself down, he warned the delegates that in “the course of four or five hundred years” it was most certain that “Papists may occupy that [presidential] chair.” More realistically, it was fear of Quakers, and of their pacifism and antislavery views, that helped fuel the debate. In Charleston, South Carolina, a writer in the City Gazette warned on January 3, 1788, that “as there will be no religious test,” the Quakers “will have weight, in proportion to their numbers, in the great scale of continental govemment.” An anticonstitutional article written for the New York Daily Advertiser that same January and widely reprinted within days in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts papers pulled no punches about the social repercussions of Article 6. No religious tests admitted to national lawmaking: “lst. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence-2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity-3dly. Deists, abominable wretches-4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain -5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil-6thly. Jews etc. etc.” Not quite finished with the last, the newspaper writer feared that since the Constitution stupidly gave command of the whole militia to the president, “should he hereafter be a]ew, our dear posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.”

The prohibition of religious tests was seen by many opponents as the operative sign of the Constitutions more basic flaw-its general godless quality, its seeming indifference to religion. Diputants around America complained, as the writer “Philadelphiensis” did in November 1787, of the framers’ “silence” and “indifference about religion.” An anonymous writer in the Virginia Independent Chronicle cautioned in October 1787 about “the pernicious effects” of the Constitution’s “general disregard of religion,” its “cold indifference towards religion.” Thomas Wilson, also of Virginia, insisted that the “Constitution is de[i]stical in principle, and in all probability the composers had no thought of God in all their consultations.” There is some truth in Mr. Wilson’s observation. When Benjamin Franklin, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, urged the delegates to open their sessions with prayers, a request cited often today by the religious right, the delegates, more worried about worldly matters like Shays’s Rebellion and America’s financial instability under the Articles of Confederation, voted to adjourn for the day rather than discuss Franklin’s suggestion. The matter was never brought up again.

Deism was, as we shall see, a powerful force among the intellectuals of the founding generation, even among many of the delegates in Philadelphia. A nondoctrinaire religion, deism rejected a supernatural faith built around an anthropomorphic God who intervened in human affairs, either in answer to prayer or for other, inscrutable reasons. Instead, it posited a naturalistic religion with a God understood as a supreme intelligence who after creating the world destined it to operate forever after according to natural, rational, and scientific laws. No surprise, then, that a frequent claim heard in 1787 and 1788 was that the Constitution represented a deistic conspiracy to overthrow the Christian commonwealth. This view was most powerfully put by the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, pamphleteer “Aristocrotis” in a piece aptly titled “The Government of Nature Delineated or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution.”

Aristocrotis contends that the delegates in Philadelphia have created a govemment that for the first time in world history removes religion from public life. Until 1787 “there was never a nation in the world whose govemment was not circumscribed by religion.” But this was no problem for the Constitutional Convention intent on creating “a govemment founded upon nature.” What, he asks, “is the world to the federal convention but as the drop of a bucket, or the small dust in the balance! What the world could not accomplish from the commencement of time till now, they easily performed in a few moments by declaring that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, under the United States? ” This, Aristocrotis suggests, “is laying the ax to the root of the tree; whereas other nations only lopped off a few noxious branches.” He argues that the “new Constitution, disdains . . . belief of a deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body, a day of judgement, or a future state of rewards and punishments,” because its authors are committed to a natural religion that is deistic nonreligion. He concludes with irony: “lf some religion must be had the religion of nature will certainly be preferred by a government founded upon the law of nature. One great argument in favor of this religion is, that most of the members of the grand convention are great admirers of it; and they certainly are the best models to form our religious as well as our civil belief on.”

Other critics of the Constitution shared Aristocrotis’ demand for the retention of a Christian commonwealth, with a similar desire to see religion be an integral part of public life. In New Hampshire, “A Friend to the Rights of the People,” writing against “the discarding of all religious tests,” asked in an interesting shift, “Will this be good policy to discard all religion?” The answer was, of course, no, for despite the Constitution “it is acknowledged by all that civil government can’t well be supported without the assistance of religion.” No man, he concluded, “is to to be a ruler of protestants, without he can honestly profess to be of the protestant religion.” During this same New Hampshire ratification debate, a delegate argued that to ratify the Constitution would be to overturn all religion and introduce a godless America, suggesting even that if the Constitution were adopted “congress might deprive the people ofthe use of the holy scriptures.”

An Anti-Federalist writer wamed in a Boston newspaper on January 10, 1788, that since God was absent from the Constitution, Americans would suffer the fate that the prophet Samuel foretold to Saul: “because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee.” In short, if Americans in their new fundamental law forgot God and His Christian commonwealth, God would soon forget them, and they would perish. The same apocalyptic theme was pidced up by the Massachusetts Anti-Federalist Charles Turner, who feared that “without the presence of Christian piety and morals the best Republican Constitution can never save us from slavery and ruin.”

One of the most moving rejections of the godless Constitution in favor of an overtly Christian government came from one “David” in the Massachussets Gazette on March 7, 1788. His message was clear. Public virtue and civic peace required governmental encouragement of and involvement with Christian religion. He defended Massachusetts’ “religious test, which requires all public officers to be of some Christian, protestant persuasion,” and criticized the federal Constitutions “public inattention” to religion and the framers’ “leaving religion to shift wholly for itself. ” The new nation was embarking on a futile course, for “it is more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the publick protection of religion.”

A letter to the delegates at the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788 urged them to insist on adding to the first or second article of the Constitution a clause requiring the creation “at every proper place through the United States” of academies regulated by Congress where young people would learn “the principles of the Christian religion without regard to any sect, but pure and unadultetated as left by its divine author and his apostle.” The social benefits expected to flow from these obligatory Christian academies sound very much like a 1788 version of the projected fruits of compulsory school prayer as urged by today`s Christian right. Were compulsory Christian education established, the Virginian affirms, “we would have Fewer law suits, less backbiting, slander, and mean observations, more industry, justice and real happiness than at present.”

Like this Virginian, those opposed to the godless Constitution did not just complain; their advocacy of a Chtistian commonwealth led them to propose specilic changes in the Constitution at various state ratifying conventions, all of which were rejected. In Connecticut, William Williams, a delegate, formally moved that the Constirution’s one-sentence preamble be enlarged to include a Christian conception of politics, He proposed that it be changed to read, “We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: that He will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence on His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union, etc., as it is expressed in the present introduction, do ordain, etc.” Williams also moved that a religious test along these lines be required for all federal officials. One hundred and sixty years later the Pledge of Allegiance might be changed by Congress to include the brief “under God.” But in 1788 the delegates in Connecticut chose not to introduce God, via Williams`s wordy resolution, into the U.S. Constitution.

Equally unsuccessful was the Virginia initiative in April and May 1788 to change the wording of Article 6 itself. “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States`° became “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil.” This change was rejected.

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.

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