The Founding Fathers Honored Secularism by Leaving God Out of the Constitution

Roundup: Historians' Take

Susan Jacoby, writing in the NYT (Jan. 8, 2004):

When I lecture on college campuses, students frequently express surprise at being told that the framers of the Constitution deliberately omitted any mention of God in order to assign supreme governmental power to ''We the People.''

Dismissing this inconvenient fact, some on the religious right have suggested that divine omnipotence was considered a given in the 1780's -- that the framers had no need to acknowledge God in the Constitution because his dominion was as self-evident as the rising and setting of the sun. Yet isn't it absurd to suppose that men as precise in their use of language as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison would absentmindedly have failed to insert God into the nation's founding document? In fact, they represented a majority of citizens who wished not only to free religion from government interference but government from religious interference.

This deep sentiment was expressed in letters to newspapers during the debate over ratification of the Constitution. One Massachusetts correspondent, signing himself ''Elihu,'' summed up the secular case by praising the authors of the Constitution as men who ''come to us in the plain language of common sense, and propose to our understanding a system of government, as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it, nor even a God in a dream to propose any part of it.''

The 18th-century public's understanding of the Constitution as a secular document can perhaps best be gauged by the reaction of religious conservatives at the time. For example, the Rev. John M. Mason, a fire-breathing New York City minister, denounced the absence of God in the preamble as ''an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.'' He warned that ''we will have every reason to tremble, lest the governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.'' But unlike many conservatives today, Mason acknowledged -- even as he deplored -- the Constitution's uncompromising secularism.

Americans tend to minimize not only the secular convictions of the founders, but also the secularist contribution to later social reform movements. One of the most common misconceptions is that organized religion deserves nearly all of the credit for 19th-century abolitionism and the 20th-century civil rights movement. While religion certainly played a role in both, many people fail to distinguish between personal faith and religious institutions.

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and the Quaker Lucretia Mott, also a women's rights crusader, denounced the many mainstream Northern religious leaders who, in the 1830's and 40's, refused to condemn slavery.

In return, Garrison and Mott were castigated as infidels and sometimes as atheists -- a common tactic used by those who do not recognize any form of faith but their own. Garrison, strongly influenced by his freethinking predecessor Thomas Paine, observed that one need only be a decent human being -- not a believer in the Bible or any creed -- to discern the evil of slavery.

During the 20th-century civil rights struggle, the movement's strongest moral leaders emerged from Southern black churches. But the moral message of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. obviously ran counter to the religious rationales for segregation preached in many white churches in the south.

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