What a godless Constitution looks like

calvey 1st gradChris received $3,000 for his essay.

The “Christian Nation” debate is rife with bad arguments, faulty reasoning and historical revisionism. Christian nationalists frequently point toward the phrases “In God We Trust” and “under God” as evidence of our nation’s religious heritage, failing to recognize that these divisive slogans were not adopted until the 1950s. (Tragically, these additions tainted the original secular and inclusive nature of our currency, pledge and national motto.)

Proponents also posit that the U.S. is a Christian nation because the “founding fathers” were all Christian. Even if this were true, the religion of hypothetically Christian founders would no more make the U.S. a Christian nation than their race or sex would make the U.S. a “white nation” or a “male nation.” (Many founders were freethinking deists, who would be considered unelectable infidels by modern-day standards for political religiosity.)

Christians conceding the above points will inevitably retreat to their last line of defense: the concept that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments or somehow built on a foundation of nebulous “Judeo-Christian values.” 

First, traditional American ideals such as liberty and equality are far more traceable to the Enlightenment than to Christianity. As for the Ten Commandments, no one can seriously defend the notion that its proscriptions are uniquely Christian.

Every society in the history of human civilization has recognized that unfettered lying, killing and stealing are generally a bad idea. (Not to mention that the first four commandments are religious edicts with absolutely no relevance to our legal system.)  

The private religious beliefs of the founders, like mottoes and commandments, are irrelevant to the question of whether our county was designed to be a “Christian Nation.” What is relevant, and what truly defines our government, is the Constitution. More than any other historical document, the Constitution best reflects the vision the founders had for the United States.

If they had intended to promote religion or establish a Christian nation, they certainly could have. What would we expect to see in the Constitution if this were the case? For this thought experiment, it is instructive to examine examples of deeply religious nations like Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Within the constitutions of each of these countries, Islam is immediately declared to be the official state religion. This is not merely mentioned in passing; rather, the commitment to Islam is enumerated in great detail, such as in Pakistan’s Constitution: “All existing laws shall be brought in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” 

What we observe in the U.S. Constitution is exactly the opposite. It contains precisely zero references to Jesus, God, Christianity, the bible or any faith at all. Religion is indeed mentioned, but only in an exclusionary context. The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Atheists in Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan can’t run for the presidency due to constitutionally mandated restrictions that the office be held by Muslims. If the U.S. founders had sought to create a Christian nation, they could have required similar religious qualifications for public office. Instead, Article 6 of our Constitution declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Newly elected presidents in these Islamic countries are also required to recite oaths saturated with religious language, including swearing to “believe in the Unity and Oneness of Almighty Allah, the Books of Allah, the Holy Quran” (Pakistan), “obey and protect the Holy religion of Islam” (Afghanistan), and “guard the official religion of the country” (Iran).

The presidential oath of office mandated by the U.S. Constitution, in contrast, is entirely secular. (The addition of “So help me God” by many affirmants is disappointing, but rest assured it does not appear in the Constitution.)

We are fortunate that the founders were deeply distrustful of the mutually corrupting influences that religion and governments have on one another. Inspired by Jefferson’s visionary conception of “building a wall of separation between Church & State,” the founders endeavored to create a government that is forever neutral on the subject of religion.

By restricting the government’s ability to pass laws either advancing or inhibiting religion, every citizen’s private religious convictions (or lack thereof) are protected equally. Fundamentalist Christian intrusions into the government in areas like reproductive rights, science policy and marriage equality dangerously erode Jefferson’s wall and are reminiscent of the actions of their religious counterparts in Islamic countries.

No doubt, they spread the Christian nation myth because they wish to make it so!  

If Christianity was so important to the founders, wouldn’t they have mentioned it at least once? We are forced to conclude, as eloquently stated in 1797 by the (unanimously ratified) Treaty of Tripoli: “The United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

Chris Calvey, 27, grew up in Schaumburg, Ill., has degrees in materials science engineering and molecular and cellular biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He’s now a fourth-year graduate student researching microbial biofuels while pursuing a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chris is an activist and vice-president of the Atheist, Humanist & Agnostics (AHA), a secular club at UW – Madison.

Freedom From Religion Foundation