Losing Their Religion

The framers of America's Constitution withstood a firestorm of controversy during the ratification process in the late 18th century because not once is the word "God" mentioned in the document that steers our ship of state. Neither does the name "Jesus" appear, nor any reference, quote, or acknowledgment whatsoever to the Bible. And yet, the rhetoric of the religious right -- the divisive campaigning of presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan, the congressional strategizing of Newt Gingrich, and the political agenda of Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition -- maintains that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that our laws are based on Biblical canon.Not so, say two Cornell professors in their new book The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. R. Laurence Moore is professor of history and author of several books dealing with religion in America. Issac Kramnick is the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government, author of volumes on American political thought in the 1800's, and editor of the Pelican Classics edition of The Federalist Papers."The Bible is not the basis of the American Constitution," says Moore, "and this was not created as a Christian nation." While the authors acknowledge that the framers were generally religious men who designed the Constitution for a moral people, their intention was self-consciously to create the first-ever secular nation in the belief that government existed only to protect private rights. The authors cite Roger Williams, a devout believer of that era, who said, "The word of God is too important to be sullied in politics."There was a tremendous outcry by many early Americans, primarily focused on Article 6, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States." The authors offer pages of examples of the kinds of letters written to the newspapers of the time. A Presbyterian minister in North Carolina worried that the Constitution offered an invitation to "Jews and pagans of every kind." A correspondent from Massachusetts voiced concern that office holders would hopefully be Christians but that "by the Constitution a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they."Similarly, from New Hampshire the fear expressed was of "a papist, a Mohomatan [sic], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government." Again from North Carolina: "To who will they [officeholders] swear support -- the ancient pagan gods of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva or Pluto?" Beyond the overtly expressed fear that Jews, Quakers, or Catholics may aspire to power through the absence of religious tests, there also was opposition to the general indifference toward religion in the Constitution.At that time, the authors explain, most of the individual states' constitutions had some kind of religious test requirement for office-holders. Maryland had such a requirement until 1961 when it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, contrary to various claims made by the religious right, Moore and Kramnick point out that "Americans in the era of the Revolution were a distinctly unchurched people. The highest estimates for the late eighteenth century make only about 10-15 percent of the population church members." They note that one French visitor to America described "Religious indifference...from one end of the continent to the other." While acknowledging that most Americans in 1776 could be generally considered as Christian, the authors tell us, they had a long way to go "before making themselves strongly Christian or strongly anything else relating to a religious persuasion."What of Pat Robertson's claim that the wall of separation between church and state is a "lie of the left?" What of Focus on the Family literature that informs us, "The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian order?" "They just happen to be wrong," says Moore. The authors have coined the term "religious correctness," intended "to turn the tables on those who imagine that the only danger to our free political institutions lies in something they, perjoratively, call political correctness."The party of religious correctness 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." However, the 182-page polemic created by the Cornell profs seeks to demonstrate that it was the party of the godless Constitution and godless politics that prevailed at the birth of our nation. "The nation's founders, both in writing the Constitution and in defending it in the ratification debates, sought to separate the operations of government from any claim that human beings can know and follow divine direction in reaching policy decisions," the authors write.It was not necessarily a posture of anti-religion that helped the party of the godless Constitution prevail over the party of religious correctness. The authors make clear that the framers had "enormous respect for religion, their faith in divinely endowed human rights, and their belief that democracy benefited from a moral citizenry who believed in God."Elimination of the religious test laws, at the heart of the Constitutional controversy, was seen by many as a "unique and bold departure from the heavy hand of religious meddling in politics." A wealthy merchant from Philadelphia declared that public service is for "any wise or good citizen...danger from ecclesiastical tyranny, that long standing and still remaining curse of the people...can be feared by no man in the United States."A future Supreme Court judge, James Iredell, wrote that test laws were a vile form of discrimination and that their ban was a guarantee of the principle of religious freedom. "How," he asks, "is it possible to exclude any set of men without thus laying the foundation which persecution has been raised in every part of the world?" The Rev. Issac Backus, a distinguished Baptist minister of the day, strongly supported the ban on religious tests: "No man or men can impose any religious test without invading the essential prerogatives of our lord Jesus Christ...And let the history of all nations be searched...and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests had been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world."The authors challenge adherents of religious correctness who use religion as a trump card to end all arguments. "Religious groups don't automatically win because they invoke God," asserts Kramnick. Moore declares that part of the reason for writing the book was because "there's a kind of sleepiness out there." If people say something often enough -- "America was founded as a Christian nation" -- there are many apt to believe it.The party of religious correctness has singled out our two most recent Democratic presidents as targets, painting their liberal philosophy as somehow opposed to good Christian values, and yet both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are far more overtly religious in their private lives than Republican George Bush, or that great bastion of conservatism Ronald Reagan. In addition, the authors point out with some irony, The Federalist Papers, so often upheld by Newt Gingrich as the final word on American politics, nowhere describes America as a Christian people with a Christian government.The authors explain that they do not "attempt to settle the judicial controversies that rage over the religious clauses of the First Amendment," which state "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It should also be noted that the phrase "wall of separation" is not mentioned in the Constitution, but was a term coined by Thomas Jefferson to describe what he thought was necessary in order to ensure freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. The book does provide factual ammunition to fire back at the party of religious correctness, the authors say, facts that can be used by those who find themselves under attack, particularly abortion rights groups, gay rights advocates, and school board activists. The authors express that they too share concerns about the social dilemmas facing our society today; the apparent crisis in morality. However, lying about where we've come from will surely not help find the way in which we must proceed. ##


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