We all know the opening words of the Preamble to the Constitution: “We the People.” If believers in the Christian nation mythology are correct, “We the People” really meant, and continues to mean: “We the Christian People.”
Let’s take a closer look at that claim. If it were true, the entire basis of the Constitution, the entire foundation of America, would radically change.
The Preamble essentially crumbles the whole argument the nation was, and is, god-ordained. In this one long sentence, the writers lay out their distinct intent, what most concerned them: to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, secure liberty in the present and future.
Who are the actors setting these goals? “We the People.” Those representatives of the original colonies were cementing the building blocks, the foundation of the new nation. All responsibility fell on their shoulders guided by wisdom, reason and common sense. No doubt many prayed in their own manner, yet this wasn’t a fall-to-the-knees moment, it was a roll-up-the-sleeves moment. Something incredible — beyond belief — was happening, and human beings were making it happen.
A critical error of the “Christian nation” legend is clear as day in the Preamble. Simply connect the opening and closing phrases: “We the People … do ordain.” True, most of the founders were steeped in a culture dominated by strict Christianity. Therefore, they would have heard loaded language since childhood, particular theological perspectives and familiar religious terminology. To use a word like “ordain” was surely intentional. From Latin, ordinare, meaning to “order” or put in order, the term “ordain” is infused with the notion that it is God who ordains — to ordain is a deeply religious idea with a long history.
When I was ordained as a Protestant minister, I was “ordained” by others who had been ordained by others — ministers, elders, deacons — in a tradition that believes faith leaders are “called by God.” It was crystal clear: Those laying hands on my head and shoulders, praying over me, did not call me to ministry and they were not ordaining me; God did those things. I was ordained by God to ministry. Christ called me and ordained me. That was the fundamental theological doctrine and description of the sacrament of ordination. It was holy because God made it holy, and this was explicit in the entire ritual, as it had been throughout my seminary education.
Even biblically, if one person or community ordained another, it was always God who did the ordaining. (See Acts 10:42, which states that Jesus was “ordained by God” and Galatians 3:19, where Paul claims he was “ordained through angels by a mediator,” that is, God/Jesus.)
So, the question must be presented to those who make the wild claim the Constitution, and the nation itself, was ordained by God: If so, why didn’t the framers write that? Why didn’t they simply add “God, through us, ordains this Constitution”? More crucially, how could they dare to carve into history the audacious claim that they themselves, as representatives of the common citizens of the colonies, were ordaining this document and thereby the nation? An outrageous claim indeed, to assume the rightful authority of Almighty God!
“We the People … do ordain.” This couplet should be kept in mind by every American who is not ignorant of the establishment of this nation as a secular democracy, formed to create a union not held together by religious beliefs but by a social contract ordained by the people themselves.
What was the very first concern of the creators of the Constitution? Power. Legislative power. Political power. A well-ordered, balanced and fairly functioning bicameral map for governing. Power contained, restrained and properly maintained. Without a king and his court, representatives of the people, equal citizens, wielded the power of decision and responsible governing.
At the end of Article VI of this amazing document, what was the crowning instruction? It states that “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Governing was not about God; government was about the common good, everything listed in the Preamble. Passing a true/false test regarding personal beliefs has no bearing on leadership abilities.
Following their hard work framing this major document, the founders discovered it was not enough. More clarification was needed. Amendments were necessary. And the very first clarification centered on religion. Why? To make absolutely clear this was not going to be a theocracy endorsing or enforcing religion — no religion in general, and no specific religion. The representatives gathered for one reason: to ordain and establish a constitutional form of government. This was not a religious body, and they had no interest in dictating religion, or any one sectarian creed (or to have any “higher” religious authority dictate their decisions). After all, they came together “to form a more perfect union,” not a nation divided once again by crown, council and creed.
The First Amendment is a powerful disruption and dismantling of the myth of a “Christian nation.” No established faith, plus freedom of faith, as well as freethought (after religion, the next stipulation is that government cannot restrict free speech, press or assembly). The union is “constituted” by We the People who espouse many faiths and no faith. It is not the government’s job to judge except when those beliefs are harmful or flout the Constitution ordained by all the people.
Thomas Jefferson stated this quite sensibly in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788), a concise summary of how a secular government with a secular Constitution should address religious issues: “It does me no injury if my neighbor believes in twenty gods or no god, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When a pocket is picked or a leg is broken, in the name of religion or anything else, the government must address the injury. Otherwise, opinions in religion are personal, not under the power of political authority. Ironically, one might make the case that this standard places the authority in the hands of a “higher authority” beyond the reach of policy or legality. Yet the rule concerns protection of pockets and legs. “This is between me and God” is fine, but that can never trump the common good.
One final point: From time to time Christian Nationalists defensively respond to the inconvenient fact that God is not acknowledged in the Constitution by pointing to the signatory phrase: “In the Year of Our Lord.” I’m no historian, but referring to the date as “In the Year of Our Lord” was surely a socially accepted convention at the time of the Continental Congress. It was a common phrase to write at the end of documents and decrees. Even the Deist and Unitarian signers had no issue with this benign practice scribbled over their “John Hancocks.”
But is this to say that writing “I ordain” or “We do ordain” was also a common phrase? Maybe. Yet here again the claim we’re countering is that somehow the Christian God ordained one land on earth, while the truth is the framers of the Constitution were asserting their own authority for the founding documents of the republic. They were not placing a divine seal on the record as a king might. This was not a divine right of kings nor was it a divine right of colonists, though certainly many felt their treasonous actions and words were divinely inspired.
As we’ve seen, these courageous revolutionary thinkers and actors, following conscience over creed, intended and revealed by these carefully worded documents, to establish a secular state where religion was not in any way a function of the state, where religious belief or non-belief was protected as free expression of free citizens, the same citizens who ordained and established something much greater and grander than any theocracy could ever be.
Chris Highland served as a Protestant minister and interfaith chaplain for many years in the San Francisco area. Now a humanist celebrant, he teaches and writes in Asheville, N.C., where he lives with his wife, the Rev. Carol Hovis. His website is “Friendly Freethinker” (www.chighland.com).