Alexander Hamilton, as the story goes, was once accosted by a man who was outraged that the governing document Hamilton had helped create, the U.S. Constitution, contained no references to God. A rather flippant Hamilton is said to have cheekily replied, “I declare, we forgot it!”
The tale is considered apocryphal, but beneath it lurks an intriguing fact that is well worth celebrating on this Constitution Day: Our national charter’s wholly secular nature.
In the late 18th century, it was common for government documents to contain religious language. Many early state constitutions, for example, include appeals to God – yet such pious platitudes are absent from the federal Constitution.
The Bill of Rights and the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom and church-state separation were added to the Constitution a few years after the signing of that document in 1787. But one could argue that the Constitution’s secular nature is itself an affirmation of the principle of separation of religion and government. The new American government saw no need to include appeals to the divine its foundational charter, a powerful signal that when it came to religion, this nation wouldn’t presume to tell people what to believe or not to believe.
Conservative pastors at the time understood that the Constitution was in no way Christian. After ratification, many of them attacked the document from their pulpits, blasting its “godless” nature. One New York minister called the lack of references to God in the Constitution “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” He opined that an angry deity would soon seek vengeance for the slight and “overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.”
This drumbeat continued, reaching a peak during the Civil War when a band of conservative pastors joined forces to create a kind of proto-Christian nationalist organization called the National Reform Association. The group had many goals, but chief among them was correcting what they saw as the founders’ mistake by rewriting the Preamble to the Constitution to add references to God, Jesus Christ and Christianity.
The National Reform Association’s proposed Preamble read: “We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”
The proposal languished in Congress for several years until the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives agreed to vote on it in 1874. The committee rejected it, pointing out in a statement that unions of church and state had done great damage in “so many nations of the Old World.”
Despite this history, today’s advocates of “Christian nation” mythology insist, against all available evidence, that our Constitution somehow officially established a Christian government. They say it over and over and some may even believe it, but they can’t get around the one thing that is fatal to their claim: the actual text of the Constitution.
But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. We know that Christian nationalists won’t stop their efforts to insert their narrow interpretation of Christianity into America’s laws; look no further than the Project Blitz campaign in the states and the Trump administration’s catering to far-right evangelicals’ policy demands. Americans United won’t stop protecting our shared secular laws that are based on our secular Constitution – and we need your support. Join us!