Reading the Godless Constitution
A timely lesson on the history and the politics of constitutional secularism in the United States of America over @ slacktivist:
So the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has decided to begin the 112th Congress by reading aloud the entire U.S. Constitution.
What I’m most interested in watching for during this stunt, however, is to see if any of the more theocratically minded members of Congress notice what the Constitution does not say. Unlike these pious politicians, the Constitution never mentions God. At all.
The intellectual ancestors of the evangelical religious right once regarded this as the most glaring and dangerous supposed flaw in America’s governing document. But the godlessness of the U.S. Constitution was not an oversight, it was a matter of deliberate design — a principled choice for which the framers fought passionately.
The “no religious test” clause was perceived by many to be the gravest defect of the Constitution. Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state’s ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Amos Singletary, another delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, was upset at the Constitution’s not requiring men in power to be religious “and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they.” In New Hampshire the fear was of “a papist, a Mohomatan, a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government.” Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, warned that “the exclusion of religious tests” was “dangerous and impolitic” and that “pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us.” If there is no religious test, he asked, “to whom will they [officeholders] swear support — the ancient pagan gods of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?”
More specific fears were clearly at work here. The absence of religious tests, it was feared, would open up the national government to control by Jews, Catholics and Quakers. The Rev. David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate in North Carolina, worried that the Constitution now offered an invitation to “Jews and pagans of every kind” to govern us. Major Thomas Lusk, a delegate in Massachusetts, denounced Article 6 of the Constitution and shuddered “at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” A delegate in North Carolina waved a pamphlet that depicted the possibility that the pope of Rome might be elected president.
The fear drives the incomprehension. Gripped by this fear, they simply cannot comprehend the meaning of no establishment — responding always, then as now, that if they are not permitted to establish their official sect, then someone else’s sect “may be established in America.”
No establishment just baffles them.