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Christianity and America: A Mixed Bag

By Gary DeMar
July 01, 2001

The Federal Constitution purports to be neutral toward religion. But neutrality toward anything is impossible. At the earliest stages of our nation's formal founding, a number of Christians noticed that a reference to God in the Preamble was absent. They saw this as an implicit departure from America's earlier Christian history:

Two small Presbyterian bodies, the Associated Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, decided to abstain from voting [to ratify the Constitution] until the Constitution was so amended as to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and the subserviency of the state to the kingdom of Christ.

"The people" seem to be the Federal Constitution's only sovereigns since "the people" are not bound to any authority greater than the collective whole. This is a marked change from the earlier state constitutions.

Pennsylvania: "We, the people of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance, do ordain and establish this Constitution."

Connecticut: "The People of this State by the Providence of God hath the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent State and forasmuch as the free fruition of such liberties and privileges as humanity, civility, and Christianity call for us, as is due to every man in his place and proportion hath ever been, and will be the tranquility and stability of Churches and Commonwealth; and the denial thereof, the disturbances, if not the ruin of both."

Georgia: "We, the people of Georgia, relying upon protection and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution."

Maryland: "We, the people of the state of Maryland, grateful to Almighty God for our civil and religious liberty [declare specific rights]."

Massachusetts: "We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence (an opportunity to form a compact); and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, (establish this Constitution)."

New York: "We, the People of the State of New York, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure its blessings, do establish this Constitution."

South Carolina: "We, the people of the State of South Carolina, grateful for our liberties, do ordain and establish this Constitution."

No doubt "the people" established the civil government of the respective states (convened its legislatures and courts, drafted its laws, and wrote its constitution), but they did it acknowledging that God made it all possible and that they, "the people," were subjects and servants under His sovereign rule. This is a Biblical concept. The colonial Protestant view did recognize the sovereignty of God as delegated to all civil governments through the people.

The Ultimate Standard
The Federal Constitution requires that "Senators, Representatives. Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution" (Article VI, section 3). But bound by whom? What is the ultimate standard that either they or the Constitution is to find its moral foundation? Since the constitutional covenant was made with "We the People," we must assume that "We the People" are the highest authority. In one sense they are, when the people acknowledge God as their Sovereign. But should the Constitution say more? The state constitutions certainly did:

Delaware Constitution (The following oath of office was in force until 1792.): "I ________________ do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be given by divine inspiration."

North Carolina Constitution (until 1876): "That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State."

Maryland: "That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this state, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God" (article 37).

Because a Biblical worldview was still operating in the eighteenth century, presidents and other public officials as well as witnesses at trial, out of tradition and requirement by state governments, still take the required constitutional oath with their hand on an open Bible and affirming, "So help me God." George Washington began the tradition at the national level. Historians will point out that it was a Masonic Bible. The practice was followed, with the lone exception of Thomas Jefferson, down to George W. Bush. Former President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office on the King James Bible used by his mother opened to 2 Chronicles 7:14. George W. Bush was going to use Washington's Masonic Bible, but poor weather conditions forced him to choose another less fragile Bible.

The Constitution does not require that an oath be taken with the Bible in hand. But the fact that the oath is still taken in this way is a reminder that the people did not fully grasp the significance of the change in their new national Constitution (this may be due to the Christian character of their state constitutions which were still intact). During the time of the Constitution's drafting their elected officials still acknowledged (even the Deist Thomas Jefferson) that there is a greater Sovereign than "We the People," although this was not always understood or applied in Biblical terms. It is only since our nation has become more secularized and anti-Christian that the full implications of "We the People" have come to light.

In the Bible, all oath-taking had to be done in the Lord's name (e.g., Dt. 10:20). The United States Constitution forbids a religious oath to be taken at the federal level: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" (Article VI, section 3).2 This, too, was a change from the state constitutions. For example, Delaware's constitution of 1776 prohibited the "establishment of one religious sect in this State in preference to another," disqualified clergymen from holding civil office, maintaining a jurisdictional separation of church and state, and yet required every public officer to take an oath professing faith in the Trinity and in the Old and New Testaments.

Luther Martin of Maryland, in a lengthy letter to the Speaker of the House of Delegates of Maryland, set forth his justification in leaving the convention and in refusing to sign the Constitution:

The part of the system which provides that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States was adopted by a great majority of the Convention and without much debate; however, there were some members so unfashionable as to think that a belief in 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.3

While the Constitution does not repudiate the Christian religion formally, it does seem to imply its dismissal by not acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler of all nations, and His revealed will as the supreme law of the land. There are, however, remnants of a Biblical worldview present in the Constitution's covenant structure, governmental themes, acknowledgment of the Christian Sabbath, and dating.

Moreover, the Christian religion played a significant role in the development of the nation prior to the convention and continued thereafter:

Throughout its history our governments, national and state, have cooperated with religion and shown friendliness to it. God is invoked in the Declaration of Independence and in practically every state constitution. Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, is universally observed as a day of rest. The sessions of Congress and of the state legislatures are invariably opened with prayer, in Congress by chaplains who are employed by the Federal government. We have chaplains in our armed forces and in our penal institutions. Oaths in courts of law are administered through use of the Bible. Public officials take an oath of office ending with "so help me God." Religious institutions are tax exempt throughout the nation. Our pledge of allegiance declares that we are a nation "under God." Our national motto is "In God We Trust" and is inscribed on our currency and on some of our postage stamps.4

As has been mentioned, the U.S. Constitution recognizes Sunday as a day of rest. The executive "veto" provision parenthetically mentions Sunday: "If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless Congress by their Adjournment prevent its return, in which Case it shall not be a Law." This is an implicit endorsement of a "peculiarly Christian institution."5

The Revolutionary Faith
America's Constitution has been able to function as a reliable governing document because a Christian worldview prevailed at the time of its drafting. There was no abandonment of Christ among the majority of the people. Compare this with the revolutionary counterpart in France. The French Revolution was bloody. "In 1792 began the massacre in which some 1,300 prisoners were killed. Before it was all over, the government and its agents killed 40,000 people, many of them peasants."6 The guillotine was used to enforce "equality." There was no such instrument in the colonies. The Declaration of Independence made it clear that equality was an endowment from the Creator.

What was the difference? France had thrown off its Christian base while the colonists were steeped in the rich Biblical heritage of the Puritans. The French revolutionaries went so far as to change the calendar, calling 1792 the "year one." Such a spectacle sent a message to the entire nation. "The French Revolution, which felt the need of a new Year One and a new calendar," where the seven-day week was changed to ten days, "was a revolution against history."7 The French revolutionary leaders separated the nation from its Christian history. "They proclaimed the goddess of Reason in NotreDame Cathedral in Paris and in other churches in France.In Paris, the goddess was personified by an actress, Demoiselle Candeille, carried shoulder high into the cathedral by men dressed in Roman costumes."8

The United States Constitution, on the other hand, did not disavow an established Christian order although it did plant the seeds for it. The United States Constitution concludes with these words: "DONE in convention by the unanimous consent of the States present, the seventeenth of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven and of the independence of the United States of America the twelfth." On September 24, 1789, the same day that it approved the First Amendment, Congress called on President Washington to proclaim a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. The First Congress resolved:

That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.

The same framers who seemingly left God out of the Constitution, thanked Him for "affording them an opportunity" to meet and draft the historical document.

Conclusion
As this cursory study of our nation's history demonstrates, to borrow a title from one of R. J. Rushdoony's first books, there is a bit of "intellectual schizophrenia" in our nation's founding. Its early history was most certainly Christian. This is best seen in its state constitutions and early charters.9 The Constitution, while including remnants of our nation's rich Christian heritage, showed early signs of secularization. Time and judicial assaults have made the cracks visible for all to see.

Notes

1. Quoted in R. Kemp Morton, God in the Constitution (Nashville, TN: Cokesbury Press, 1933), 72.

2. See Gary DeMar, America's Christian History: The Untold Story (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2000), chap. 5.

3. Morton, God in the Constitution, 79.

4. Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 10203.

5. Jasper Adams, The Relation of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States. A Sermon, Preached in St. Michael's Church, Charleston, February 13, 1833, before the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of South-Carolina. 2nd ed. (Charleston, SC: A.E. Miller, 1833), 15.

6. Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1976), 124.

7. Pieter Geyl, Uses and Abuses of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955), 22. Quoted by Rousas J. Rushdoony, This Independent Republic (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1964), 137n.

8. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 122.

9. Francis Newton Thorpe, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming The United States of America, 7 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909).


Topics: American History, Constitution, The

Gary DeMar

Gary DeMar is president of American Vision and the editor of the monthly magazine The Biblical Worldview. He is the author of eighteen books on a variety of subjects. His latest book, Thinking Straight in a Crooked World, is designed to prepare high school students for the rigors of academic combat at the university level. Gary can be reached at www.americanvision.org, [email protected] spring.com, or 1-800-628-9460.

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