A Godless Constitution?: A Response to Kramnick and Moore

Daniel L. Dreisbach

Daniel L. Dreisbach, D. Phil. (Oxford University) and J. D. (University of Virginia), is an associate professor at American University in Washington, D. C.. He is the author of Religion and Politics in the Early Republic (University Press of Kentucky, 1996), and Real Threat and Mere Shadow: Religious Liberty and the First Amendment (Crossway Books, 1987).

In their provocative polemic The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (W. W. Horton, 1996), Cornell University professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore argue that the God-fearing framers of the U. S. Constitution "created an utterly secular state" unshackled from the intolerant chains of religion. They purportedly find evidence for this thesis in the constitutional text, which they describe as radically "godless" and distinctly secular. Their argument, while an appealing antidote to the historical assertions of the religious right, is superficial and misleading.

There were, indeed, anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution who complained bitterly that the document's failure to invoke the Deity and include explicit Christian references indicated, at best, indifference or, at worst, hostility toward Christianity. This view, however, did not prevail in the battle to ratify the Constitution. The professor's inordinate reliance on the Constitution's most vociferous critics to describe and define that document results in misleading, if not erroneous, conclusions. Furthermore, like the extreme anti-Federalists of 1787, the professors misunderstand the fundamental nature of the federal regime and its founding charter.

 The U. S. Constitution's lack of a Christian designation had little to do with a radical secular agenda. Indeed, it had little to do with religion at all. The Constitution was silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that, despite the framer's personal beliefs, religion was a matter best left to the individual citizens and their respective state governments (and most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment). The Constitution, in short, can be fairly characterized as "godless" or secular only insofar as it deferred to the states on all matters regarding religion and devotion to God.

 Relationships between religion and civil government were defined in most state constitutions, and the framers believed it would be inappropriate for the federal government to encroach upon or usurp state jurisdiction in this area. State and local governments, not the federal regime, it must be emphasized, were the basic and vital political units of the day. Thus, it was fitting that the people expressed religious preferences and affiliations through state and local charters.

 Professors Kramnick and Moore find further evidence for a godless Constitution in the Article VI religious test ban. Here, too, they misconstrue the historical record. Their argument rests on the false premise that, in the minds of the framers, support for the Article VI ban was a repudiation of state establishments of religion and a ringing endorsement of a radically secular polity. The numerous state constitutions written between 1776 and 1787 in which sweeping religious liberty and nonestablishment provisions coexisted with religious test oaths confirm the poverty of this assumption. The founding generation, in other words, generally did not regard such measures as incompatible.

 The Article VI ban (applicable to federal officeholders only) was not driven by a radical secular agenda or a renunciation of religious tests as a matter of principle. The fact that religious tests accorded with popular wishes is confirmed by their inclusion in the vast majority of revolutionary era state constitutions.

 Professors Kramnick and Moore also blithely ignore Article I, sec. 2 of the U. S. Constitution, which deferred to state qualifications for the electors of members of the U. S. House of Representatives. This provision is significant since the constitutional framers of 1787 knew that in some states--such as South Carolina--the requisite qualifications for suffrage included religious belief.

 Significantly, there were delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who endorsed the Article VI ban but had previously crafted religious tests for their respective state constitutions. The constitutional framers did not appreciate this apparent contradiction, which arises under a secular construction of Article VI. The framers believed, as a matter of federalism, that the Constitution denied the national government all jurisdiction over religion, including the authority to administer religious tests. Many in founding generation supported a federal test ban because they valued religious tests required under state laws, and they feared that a federal test might displace existing state test oaths and religious establishments. In other words, support for the Article VI ban was driven in part by a desire to preserve and defend the instruments of "religious establishment" (specifically, religious test oaths) that remained in the states.

 The late-eighteenth-century view of oaths and religious test bans is illustrated in state constitutions of the era. The Tennessee Constitution of 1796 included the language of the Article VI test ban; however, the same constitution states that "no person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State." Adopting a standard definition of oaths, the Kentucky Constitution of 1792, which omitted an express religious test but prescribed a basic oath of office, stated that required oaths and affirmations "shall be esteemed by the legislature [as] the most solemn appeal to God." This understanding of oaths, which was largely unchallenged in the founding era and frequently repeated in the state ratifying conventions, suggests that the U. S. Constitution, contrary to Professors Kramnick and Moore, was not entirely devoid of religious affirmations and did not create an utterly secular polity. The argument was made in ratifying conventions that the several constitutionally required oaths implicitly countenanced an acknowledgment of God (which, in a sense, constituted a general, nondenominational religious "test"), while the Article VI test ban merely proscribed sect-specific oaths for federal officeholders.

The debates in Article VI in state ratifying conventions further indicate that few, if any, delegates denied the advantage of placing devout Christians in public office. The issue warmly debated was the efficacy of a national religious test for obtaining this objective.

 The Godless Constitution's lack of clear documentation is a disappointment. In order to examine the book's thesis more fully, I attempted to document the claims and quotations in the second chapter, which sets forth the case that the "principal architects of our national government envisioned a godless Constitution and a godless politics." It was readily apparent why these two university professors, who live in the world of footnotes, avoided them in this tract. The book is replete with misstatements or mischaracterizations of fact and garbled quotations. For example, the professors conflate two separate sections of New York Constitution of 1777 to support the claim that it "self-consciously repudiated tests" (p. 31). Contrary to this assertion, neither constitutional section expressly mentions religious tests and, indeed, test oaths were retained in the laws of New York well into the nineteenth century. The Danbury Baptists, for another example, did not ask Jefferson to designate "a fast day for national reconciliation" (pp.97, 119).

 The book illustrates what is pejoratively called "law office history." That is, the authors, imbued with the adversary ethic, selectively recount facts, emphasizing data that support their own prepossessions and minimizing significant facts that complicate or conflict with their biases. The professors warn readers of this on the second page when they describe their book as a "polemic" that will " lay out the case for one" side of the debate on the important "role of religion in public and political life."

 The suggestion that the U. S. Constitution is godless because it makes only brief mention of the Deity and Christian custom is superficial and misguided. Professors Kramnick and Moore succumb to the temptation to impose twentieth-century values on eighteenth-century text. Their book is less an honest appraisal of history than a partisan tract written for contemporary battles. They frankly state their desire that this polemic will rebut the "Christian nation" rhetoric of the religious right. Unfortunately, their historical analysis is as specious as the rhetoric they criticize.

©1997 by Daniel L. Dreisbach. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author. Originally published at Wallbuilders.