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When I started to write this series of diaries, one of my intentions was to debunk some of the nonsense about our nation's history that has found its way into the national discourse. Two weeks ago, chrislove published a diary, Crackpot "Historian" David Barton: The Constitution quotes the Bible "verbatim", with links to Right Wing Watch's David Barton page, and I knew exactly what I was going to do with the Constitution this time around. Especially since I get to discuss the whole issue of whether we live in a Christian nation as I look at it.  

According to the framers?  Um, no.  Godless, and beyond that, mostly religion-free, as each use of "religion" or "religious" is accompanied very closely by the words "no" or "not." Come with me below the squiggle to see how this worked.

The debate about the Constitution and its Christian/Biblical roots has been going on since the 1770s. As Isaac Kramnick and  R. Laurence Moore write in their magisterial polemic, The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (1995, rev. 2006),* there are two parties in this debate:

the party of the godless Constiution and of godless politics
which they (and I) represent, and
the party of religious correctness, [which] maintains that the United States was established as a Christian nation by Christian people, with the Christian religion assigned a central place in guiding the nation's destiny.
 Examples of the party of religious correctness (yes, snark) are David Barton, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the now-apparently-silent Ralph Reed.

Kramnick and Moore explain that Americans in the age of the Revolution weren't strongly religious.  In fact, the historian Eric Slauter, in The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (2009)* refers to the decade as the "Godless 1780s." It seems that although the same number of books had "God" in their titles as in previous decades, so many more books were published during the decade that the percentage declined from 13% during the 1750s to about 2%.  Here's how this worked:

This was the bestselling American book of the 17th century: the captivity narrative written by Mary Rowlandson about her experiences in King Philip's War and published in 1682Photobucket
and here's an edition published in 1773

1682: Soveraignty [sic] and Goodness of God; 1773: A Narrative of the Captivity, Suffering and Removes. Incidentally, the 1773 title was the title the book was published under in London in 1682, but I digress.

Accordingly (Kramnick and Moore again), the Constitution is a godless document, and its neglect of religion was obvious to everyone involved in writing it.  It was also bitterly attacked for this, but the advocates of a secular state won, and won so definitively that the campaign to discredit the Constitution as irreligious has been "underremembered."

We can see this VERY clearly in the preample to the Consitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Who doth ordain and establish this Constitution? We the People! Not any of the religious deities David Barton wants to imagine were involved.  This is a departure from the Declaration of Independence  ("Nature and Nature's God") and from the Articles of Confederation ("The Great Governor of the World') AND from many of the existing state constitutions.  Intentional.

Not, of course that people haven't tried. The ratifying convention in Connecticut rejected an effort to add a Christian conception of politics to the preamble. Here is the text of the so-called "Christian" Amendment, first considered in 1863, at the height of the Civil War:

We, the People of the United States [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all], in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Note that this deletes "provide for the common defence." The  House of Representatives considers it a few times between 1864 and 1874, but it went nowhere.

No mention of a deity.  No reference to the Bible (I guess David Barton thinks "verbatim" means something beside what the rest of us think it means). No reference to ANYTHING religious, with the exception of this, from Article VI.

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.
Really surprising.  Eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests in their constitutions, and, even in Rhode Island, only Protestants could hold office.  The two exceptions? Virginia, where the Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) specified no religious test, and New York.  

and this.

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names,
The Year of Our Lord. Anno Domini (or A.D.).  That's it. A negation, and a matter of form.  Yes, Godless, or, if you prefer, God-free.

But, of course, that's not really it, because the Constitution was amended within four years after it was ratified, and religion is mentioned in the first set of amendments.  Incidentally, there's a terrific new book on the Ratification process -- Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010).* That the Constitution would be amended immediately was not a sure thing when the Constitution was sent to the states, and, in fact, five states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut) ratified the unamended constitution without even calling for any amendments. HOWEVER, everybody realized that a country that didn't include Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina and New York would be a weak one.

To a great extent, we have Massachusetts to thank for our Bill of Rights, because when that ratifying convention was seated, the anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution had a majority. The Federalists tried to delay vote by debating the Constitution one clause at a time as appeals made to both sides, and Sam Adams, by now a leading Anti-federalist was swayed when the Boston artisans demonstrated in favor of the Constitution. Eventually, the moderate Anti-federalists were won over by a Federalist pledge to consider a Bill of Rights.  Once the other states who had not yet ratified the Constitution saw this, every subsequent ratification convention found the majority willing to concede on amendments.

It was thus that one of the first actions of the First Congress (conducted without North Carolina and Rhode Island, who had not yet ratified the Constitution) was to vote in favor of twelve amendments, ten of which we now venerate as the Bill of Rights. Again, entirely Godless, except for the First Amendment.

It's always interesting to see which part of the First Amendment gets the most attention at various points in history.  We live in an unusual time, actually, because the section that we really paid attention to last autumn was the part about the right of the people peaceably to assemble, thanks to the Occupy movement.  Usually it's speech, which will most likely be the next part we pay attention too as we prepare to get rid of Citizens United, but in a couple of weeks we'll review some serious violations of the "of the press" part when we look at the 18th century version of the PATRIOT Act, and today we'll look at the mentions of religion.

So here it is.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Even though several states still had established churches.  The last to disestablish was Massachusetts, in 1833.

Yes, Protestant Christians represent a plurality of Americans, and a definite majority when the Constitution was written, but the people who wrote the Constitution were very aware of this and decided, almost despite this, that the country would be religiously neutral.  Game, set and match.

* The links to books are either to or to's new-used page on the book.  This is in deference to lightbulb's series of diaries, Confessions of a Retail Worker and it lets you decide what kind of company you want to order from.

6:58 PM PT: I edited the last paragraph to make it a lot more explicit than it had been.  It doesn't change the meaning of it or the diary at all.

Originally posted to Dave in Northridge on Wed Apr 25, 2012 at 02:29 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Street Prophets .

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