During the 1787 US Constitutional Convention debates in Philadelphia, things were not going well, and so Benjamin Franklin, a delegate, implored that “one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate.” The request was turned down because, among other things, the convention didn’t have the money to hire one. Alexander Hamilton, another delegate at the convention, apparently felt that they didn’t need “foreign aid.”
That story points to what, for many, is an embarrassing fact about the American form of government, and that is—it is decidedly not Christian. The US Constitution itself not only has no reference to Christ but also has no reference to God. The only time religion is referred to at all is to restrict what the federal government can do regarding religion. Article 6, clause 3, states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” And the First Amendment to the US Constitution states tha “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In the 85 essays that make up The Federalist, deemed the first extensive commentary on the meaning of the US Constitution (ratified in 1788), the word God is mentioned only twice.
And though the Declaration of Independence, which is not a governing document, talked about the “Creator” an “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” anyone who knows anything about its primary author—Thomas Jefferson—knows that whoever he believed the “Creator” and “nature’s God” was, it was not Jesus Christ or even Yahweh of the Bible. Hardly! Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in any of the miracle stories in the New Testament, and he called Jesus’ disciples a “band of dupes and impostors” and Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.”1
Because of these historical facts, some argue that religion, particularly (it seems) Christian religion, should be relegated to the private sphere only, with no public manifestation or even expression allowed. In their mindset, the phrase “one Nation under God” should be eliminated from the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God we trust” should be removed from our currency, and things like public displays of the Ten Commandments should be banned.
On the other hand, from America’s earliest days, many believed that America should be a distinctly Christian nation, with Christianity as the foundation of the nation’s laws and government. During state ratifying conventions for the US Constitution, many delegates railed against what they called “the godless Constitution” and were especially enraged at the “no religious test clause.” The Reverend David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate to the North Carolina convention, feared that the Constitution opened the way for “Jews and pagans of every kind” to be political leaders in America. Hence, from the nation’s founding, some Americans pushed to embed Christianity into the very fabric of the Constitution itself.
In 1863, ministers in Ohio proposed the following amendment (shown in brackets) to the preamble of the US Constitution: “WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all,] in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Numerous other attempts to add amendments to the Constitution that would have made Christianity, or some version thereof, the foundation of American life and government failed. Many believed that the Civil War was divine punishment for ignoring God in the country’s founding document.
In more recent years, some still push the idea of America as a Christian nation. The most extreme ideology comes from Christian Reconstructionism, which openly advocates “theonomy.” This word comes from two Greek words—theos (God) and nomos (law)—the idea being that God’s law, not just the Ten Commandments but the judicial laws of the Old Testament as well, should be applied to American society.
The idea, though, of Christianity in some form or another as the basis of American law is not just on the extremes. A recent Pew Research survey found that “most U.S. adults believe America’s founders intended the country to be a Christian nation, and many say they think it should be a Christian nation today.”2 The research showed that “45% of U.S. adults . . . say they think the country ‘should be’ a Christian Nation.”3
So the question is, Which side is correct—which side has history to back up its claims? The answer is both and neither. That is, though each side has evidence for its position, each side’s position is, nevertheless, wrong.
a limited government
An important thing to remember about the founding of America and its Constitution is that the nation had just fought a devastating war with the world’s greatest military power at the time—England. Thousands of Americans died in order to break away from what they saw as an unjust, tyrannical government. After freeing themselves from London, the last thing they wanted was to be tyrannized by an American government. The US Constitution, though giving the federal government certain specific powers, greatly limited those powers. That is, ideally, the federal government could only do what the Constitution said it could—nothing more. The rest of the powers were left up to the states.
That’s why the federal government could not apply a religious test for anyone taking “any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That is why, in the federal government, Congress could not establish a religion or restrict its free exercise.
In contrast, the states could apply religious tests and could make laws establishing or restricting religion—and they did. In fact, at the time the US Constitution was ratified, almost every state did have a religious test clause for public office. And as far as established state churches went, one reason that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment had been included was to let the states with established churches know that the federal government would leave their established churches alone. It did, and many states kept the established church for years too. The last state to end its establishment of religion was Massachusetts—but not until 1833.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the US Supreme Court applied the federal restrictions to the states and all levels of government. That is why, since then, no religious test for any office, from dogcatcher to governor, is allowed. And it is why no state or county can establish a religion or restrict its free exercise—however difficult it has proven, at times, to equably apply these laws.
religion in America
What does all this mean, then, about the role of religion in America? Perhaps the most famous expression of the American situation came from author and theologian Edmund A. Opitz, who wrote: “We are a Christian nation in the sense that our understanding of human nature and destiny, the purpose of individual life, our convictions about right and wrong, our norms, emerged out of the religion of Christendom—not out of Buddhism, Confucianism, or primitive animism. And it is a fact of history that our forebears whose religious convictions brought them to these shores in the 17th and 18th centuries sought to create in this new world a biblically based Christian commonwealth. But it was not to be a theocracy—of which the world had seen too many! It was to be a religious society, but one which incorporated a secular political order!”4
Those pushing for a Christian nation and those who would want to all but eradicate religion from public life both have it wrong. One reason that the framers put these restrictions on the federal government was not to hurt religion but to protect minority religions from the potential dangers of majority rule.
Suppose a government favorable to, say, Free Will Baptists was voted into office and wanted not only to make the Free Will Baptist denomination the national religion but also to restrict any religious practice contrary to it. The US Constitution forbids it. In short, the secular nature of the American government—its “godless Constitution”—has created an environment so friendly to religion that, to this day, of the industrialized nations, the United States, especially in contrast to Western Europe, remains by far the most religious, with the Christian faith predominating.
God’s law, the law of the land?
The irony shouldn’t be missed: the secular nature of our government has allowed Christianity to thrive in this country as in almost no other modern Western one.
Suppose, for instance, those ministers from Ohio had gotten their proposed change to the preamble of the US Constitution adopted in 1863. It advocated for, among other things, “the law of God as the paramount rule.” On one level, that might sound fine, especially to Christian ears. But outside of the basic laws that every society has, such as laws against stealing and killing, which denomination’s version of God’s law, the Ten Commandments, would be enforced? The Roman Catholic version is different from the standard biblical version that most Protestants adhere to. Which one would be enshrined in the Constitution?
In regard to the fourth commandment, which is the Sabbath commandment, the biblical Sabbath is the seventh day, Saturday, even though most Christians keep Sunday instead. Whose version becomes the law of the land, and what happens to those whose religious beliefs clash with that law? If Christians cannot agree even on something as basic as the Ten Commandments, imagine the trouble that would come if one denomination’s version of Christianity were the law of the land in which about 200 different denominations exist.
The genius behind our “godless Constitution” was an attempt to avoid, to the greatest degree possible, precisely the kind of trouble that had plagued Europe for centuries. God alone knows the violence, suffering, and sheer terror that millions faced when the so-called Christian governments of Europe tried to enforce their version of Christianity on the populace. The earlier settlers who first came to America had, unfortunately, brought that same mindset with them, and so the colonies were hardly a bastion of religious freedom.
However, when the American Revolution had ended, and America’s Founding Fathers—with or without “foreign aid”—had a chance to all but create a country from scratch, they purposely sought to keep any kind of religious dogma out of the US Constitution and out of the law of the land. And contrary to the claims of those who think this act somehow meant religion should be all but eradicated from public life, their actions had intentionally
created the kind of environment where religion—everyone’s religion—can flourish, both privately and publicly. Although hardly flawless, it has, nevertheless, worked remarkably well.
Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s daily Bible-study guide and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.
1. Thomas Jefferson to William Short, letter, Monticello, Virginia, April 13, 1820, Monticello, accessed March 7, 2023, https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1559.
2. Gregory A. Smith, Michael Rotolo, and Patricia Tevington, “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be ‘Christian Nation,’ ” Pew Research Center, October 27, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/10/27/45-of-americans-say-u-s-should-be-a-christian-nation/.
3. Smith, Rotolo, and Tevington.
4. Edmund A. Opitz, “Biblical Roots of American Liberty,” Libertarian Christian Institute, November 3, 2010, https://libertarianchristians.com/2010/11/03/biblical-roots-of-american-liberty/.