Religion and the Constitution: The Triumph of Practical Politics

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in The Christian Century March 23-30, l994, pp 316-327. Copyrighted by TheChristian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The reviewer of two lenghthy volumes on the debates preceding the ratification of the U S Constitution reports on religious matters as these surfaced in the debates.

"It is one of the striking facts of American history that the American Revolution was led by men who were not very religious," wrote Gordon Wood in New York History. "At the best the Founding Fathers only passively believed in organized Christianity and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it." When asked why the Constitution did not mention God, Alexander Hamilton is said to have answered, "We forgot."

As a major interpreter of our country's founding, Wood reflects the influence of his teacher Bernard Bailyn, who in two important new volumes provides the best general access to the period in which the Founding Fathers -- yes, they were all men -- debated their Constitution of 1787 and sold themselves, each other and the public on its ratification. This generous sampling of the argument helps contemporary readers assess the religious and metaphysical foundations and contentions of their thought.

Northwestern University law professor Stephen Presser has said that "at first blush, it would appear that none but the truly weird would find these two new volumes ... compulsive late-night page-turners." But I joined him in the company of the weird by marking all the references that could be construed as religious. I began at the outer limits with what I call the "sacral penumbra" of nondescript and rather noncommittal incidental references. (These do not include the more frequent and clear references in the sustained arguments discussed later in this essay.) My marker found three favorites: at least 30 "Heavens," as in "merciful Heaven," and 15 or 20 "blessings of heaven"; there were 15 usually casual "sacreds," as in "sacred liberties." God comes up often, but almost never in biblical terms; "God," we remember, was generic for deists and theists, philosophers and believers alike. In one instance in this collection, one John Smilie quotes the Declaration of Independence on the Creator. Beyond that, in these two lengthy volumes there are about 20 references to God, while the Almighty and the Creator make single cameo appearances. We read at least seven times of Providence; the Supremes are here four times, as in Supreme Being and Supreme Ruler of the Universe; Lord, as in "O Lord!" or "the Year of Our Lord," turns up six times, and there is a Sovereign Ruler of Events, one Grace, two Governors (of the World and the Universe),two Nature's Gods, and, for good measure, one Goddess of Liberty. Whether the general absence of the biblical God is intentional or reflects the habits of the Enlightenment, it is significant.

On one occasion, vox populi is identified with vox dei, a questionable theological concept, to be sure. Once, people are called "the sole governours (under God)," and I spotted another "under God" in connection with George Washington. Writers also refer to "the immutable laws of God and " reason," and "the laws of nature and nature's God." The citation of the Bible as authority is extremely rare. Once Benjamin Rush deals abstractly with "reason and revelation," and John Dickinson cites Holy Scriptures on perfect liberty and speaks of "the inspired Apostle Saint Paul." The latter is one of the most charged references in the two volumes; Dickinson uses I Corinthians 12 on the body of Christ as an analogy for "the benefits of union" in the republic. As for human nature, only once do. I recall spotting the word "sin." Calvin's God was far back in the wings in this Enlightenment-era discourse.

For a people putatively schooled in scripture, these arguers use relatively few biblical allusions. I counted three references to Moses. In Noah Webster's citation, Moses gets paired with Fohi and Confucius, Zamolxis and Odin and other "fabled demi-gods of antiquty" In another citation Moses joins Montesquieu as a representative genius. There are other casual allusions to the Bible, but they are slight and quickly dropped.

Terribly slim pickings, these. While practical politics was the preoccupation of these debaters, they were debating what was deepest in the people's minds and hearts. Consequently, it seems strange that I found only one reference to Christology or Christian salvation: the "blood of the Redeemer." "John Humble," speaking for "the low born," at one point makes fun of "the perfection of this evangelical constitution" and its claimed place "in the salvation of America," but that language does not advance the case for seeing America as a Christian country. One would hardly know from these collected documents that Americans were churchgoers; I caught them at church in only one casual allusion. Denominations are rarely mentioned, though Quakers are visible, chiefly as pacifists. Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia defends "Quakers, Mennonists, Moravians, and several other sects scrupulous against war" from charges that they are "enemies to liberty and the rights of mankind.

"The clergy are almost invisible; once there is a minister of the gospel; once, some are "reverend"; and clergy march in place in a Maryland ratification parade. Did I overlook more than the one reference I found to "pastor," and the one to "theologian," as in "the close reasoning of the theologian," in lawyer Simeon Baldwin's speech?

Are the American people chosen? James Winthrop thought so, but that is about it (1:764). Unless my snooping eye missed some references, Americans were Christians. only once in 2,387 pages -- in Baldwin's oration at New Haven on July 4, where hearers were asked "to discharge our duty to our God, our country and ourselves, like true patriots and benevolent Christians." Historian David Ramsay wrote to South Carolinians to "consider the-people of all the thirteen states, as a band of brethren, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, inhabiting one undivided country, and designed by heaven to be one people," but the religion is unspecified. As for devotion, there is a reference to one's "prayer to God," but we 20th-century folk hear more such talk in a single presidential inaugural address.

The established religion of England gets mentioned ten or 20 times, in every case negatively, though George Mason once neutrally quotes the Book of Common Prayer. The founders allude to creeds once or twice but do not quote them from church history; Athanasius appears once, and we read of heretics. There is little anti-Catholicism in these almost entirely non-Catholic writings. Remember, these folks are arguing for ratification and are not eager to make religious enemies.

The founders were aware of what James Madison called "various and irreconcilable . : . doctrines of Religion" (1:746), and they were occasionally alert to world religions. This was especially true of Noah Webster, who states that the Alcoran of the Muslims is not likely to become the American "rule of faith and practice." There is an awareness of old Roman augury and priesthood, back when legislators "derived much of their power from the influence,of religion, or from that implicit belief which an ignorant and,superstitious people entertain of the gods, and their interposition in every transaction of life." But in modern North America such behavior would be incredible and impossible (1:154-56).

One of the most serious issues in constitutional discourse was the virtue of the people, since constitutional law would be effective only if citizens respected it. Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia was the most explicit concerning people's response to the divine when he wrote about congressmen

: Another mighty influence to the noblest principle of action will be the fear of God before their eyes; for while they sit in the place of God, to give law, justice, and right to the States, they must be monsters indeed if they do not regard his law and imitate his character.

James Madison, however, balances Webster in a letter to Thomas Jefferson about possible restraints of majorities who might persecute minorities:

Religion. The inefficacy of this restraint on individuals is well known. The conduct of every popular Assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shews that individuals join without remorse in acts against which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets. When indeed religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude. But enthusiasm is only a temporary state of Religion, and whilst it lasts will hardly be seen with pleasure at the helm. Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.

The most sustained religious discussion in these huge volumes has to do with the line in Article VI of the Constitution that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Luther Martin, a fierce opponent of ratification, reported that the "no religious test" clause easily had passed at Philadelphia, but went on sarcastically:

However, there were some members so unfashionable as to think that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian country it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.

The most notable New England Baptist, Isaac Backus, opposed such a test, stating that "no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ." William Williams, a Connecticut signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in the American Mercury that he wished the clause could have been omitted, and even would have liked to have voted for its reverse, "to require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence," and an italicized affirmation of God in the preamble to the Constitution. Williams says he knows that such a phrase would have produced hypocrites and have provided no security, but he wished it were there simply as a public testimony.

On the other hand, Oliver Ellsworth takes three pages to defend the Article VI clause as not being "unfavourable to religion." It was designed "to exclude persecution" and to secure "the important right of religious liberty." English law and practice show the evils that would threaten were the clause not here. "A test in favour of any one denomination of Christians would be to the last degree absurd in the United States." Even a test-act that required officeholders to declare "their belief in the being of a God, and in the divine authority of the scriptures," would not have satisfied, since it is easy to dissemble. "If we mean to have those appointed to public offices who are sincere friends to religion; we the people who appoint them, must take care to choose such characters; and not rely upon such cob-web barriers as test-laws are.

"Henry Abbott and James Iredell returned to the issue in a report from the North Carolina Convention. Abbott stated that some feared that without religious tests, "Pagans, Deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us," and that legislators might some day "all be Pagans." Without religious texts, would oaths of office be taken "by Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Proserpine or Pluto"? Iredell responded, referring to the "dreadful mischiefs" and "utmost cruelties" that had occurred "under the colour of religious texts" throughout history. America had already chosen a more modest, reasonable and tolerant course. Iredell asks, "How is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?" But he concludes, "It is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own." Let religion be permitted to take its own course; "the divine author of our religion never wished for its support by worldly authority.

After the "religious tests" debates, the most significant treatment of religion occurred in debates having to do with pluralism, "the multiplicity of sects," republicanism and religious freedom. Most of the suspicious antifederalists were pushing for a Bill of Rights, while the federalists, feeling that rights had been assured in the unamended Constitution, opposed it.

In Virginia, where Patrick Henry favored what is now called nonpreferential support, a quasi-establishment, James Madison, his opponent, argued that a Bill of Rights "declaring that religion should be secure" was unnecessary. Because of the presence of what Madison called a "multiplicity of sects" Americans had freedom of religion, and that was "the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.

"Z," replying to Benjamin Franklin in Boston, did argue that there had to be an express reservation of "inherent unalienable rights," for example, "in case the government should have in their heads a predilection for any one sect in religion? ... [and for] erecting a national system of religion?" (1:7). Tench Coxe in Philadelphia enumerated all the sects that had come to America for the sake of freedom of religion, and noted that they brought with them dispositions to other freedorns in matters of government. The anonymous "Federal Farmer" in letters to "The Republican" joined in: "It is true, we are not disposed to differ much, at present, about religion; but when we are making a constitution, it is to be hoped, for ages and millions yet unborn, why not establish the free exercise of religion, as a part of the national compact."

The "multiplicity of sects" theme came to prominence in Madison's Federalist Papers X and LI. These are more a celebration of religious diversity than of religion, since Madison seems nervous about religion's power to tyrannize. Still arguing for a large federal republic, Madison returned to the theme in Federalist LI,.where wariness about religious power is checked by celebration of diversity:

In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other, in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.

In the event, the United States in 1789 added a Bill of Rights including the religion clause to the Constitution, and the nation became the large republic with many sects that Madison foresaw and wanted. The philosophy behind the religion clause derived from the Madisonian-Jeffersonian Virginian resolution, copied also by North Carolina:

20th. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preferrence [sic] to others.

I will not have discharged my self-chosen duties successfully without referring to two passages by notable founders that throw special if idiosyncratic light on religion. One is by the renowned Philadelphia physician and constitutionalist Benjamin Rush. In a 1787 speech at the Pennsylvania Convention reported on in the Pennsylvania Herald two days later, he awakened furies by arguing that ratification was divinely mandated. The other offbeat entry is Benjamin Franklin's speech at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787, the document which opens Bailyn's two-volume collection and frames some of what follows. He did not entirely approve of the Constitution, he said, and pleaded for modesty. The aged sage still had wit:

Most Men indeed as well as most Sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Steele, a Protestant, in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the- only difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong.

After antifederalist riots at Carlisle, Franklin returned to the scene with a satire against the rioters, comparing them to the ancient Jews who rejected a constitution handed down by God and "recorded in the most faithful of all Histories, the Holy Bible." There followed four pages of reference to biblical history (Exodus and Numbers), after which Franklin concluded that he did not want to be thought of as arguing that the General Convention was similarly divinely inspired:

Yet I must own I have so much Faith in the general Government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous Importance to the Welfare of Millions now existing, and to exist in the Posterity of a great Nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenc'd, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior Spirits live, and move, and have their Being.

One could never be too sure from Franklin's language where he stood, .and the same is the case with other major figures like Jefferson or Madison. It was Madison who reflected most on ambiguity, obscurity, cornplexity, the equivocal, and the noncopiousness of language. He also cast the problem against a transcendent backdrop: ' "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated." .

My reading of 2,387 pages of "cloudy medium" may have clouded things more. It's clear, at any rate, that religious references in these primal republican political debates were rare and vague. In addition, almost no one found it easy to speak of a Christian republic or to offer a consistent theological rationale of constitutionalism. The few sustained debates about "religious tests" and "religious freedom" treated the potential for religious monopolies, hegemonies or majorities-and even religion itself-as a problem. Finally, the Madisonian devotion to pluralism won out over attempts to legislate metaphysical or theological solutions or to privilege particular traditions.

The two volumes confirm the idea that the founders' practical politics displaced and left little room for sustained discussion of the metaphysical, metaethical and theological backdrop to constitutionalism. The debates occurred at a time when there was enough Enlightenment talk about "Nature's God" to compromise evangelical talk about the God of the Bible in the affairs of the United States. When one contrasts outcomes in the United States with those in Europe, one is tempted to conclude that the "godless" Constitution and the reticent constitutionalists helped make possible a "godly" people.

The evangelicalization of American culture, then, did not derive from the constitutional period but from the times that followed, times of revivalism and immigration. It was not 1776 or 1787-89 but the period that followed which led Jon Butler to see Americans Awash in a Sea of Faith, Nathan Hatch to write of The Democratization of American Religion, me to write of the Protestant experience as an advocacy of a Righteous Empire , Robert Handy to describe A Christian America and Mark A. Noll, Nathan 0. Hatch and George M. Marsden to observe and criticize The Search for Christian America.

The language of the constitutional debates was, like that of the Almighty, in Madison's view, "rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated." Bailyn's triumph of editing and publishing The Debate on the Constitution communicates that aspect of language brightly and without doubt.