It has become inescapably apparent that, no matter how many times I have tried to clarify it, my position regarding the original intentions behind the claim that the U.S. Constitution was intended to establish a secular government have never been clearly understood. As I have said it is always on the author to make himself clear, I must accept that this confusion has been due to my inability to make my position clear to those who read my posts. As usual, this will be lengthy, but only because I intend to do my best to make my case unmistakably clear this time. In addition, I want to state that what follows is based on my best understanding of what our founders wrote with their own pens. In support of my understanding, I have liberally quoted from many of the founders. I offer this now for the reader’s consideration and with the stipulation that this is nothing more than my understanding of what the founders originally intended, an understanding based upon this sentiment:
“On every question of construction carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
–Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Johnson, June 12, 1823
“I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that is not the guide in expounding it, there may be no security.”
I start with the notion that the U.S. Constitution established a secular government. Before we begin, let’s establish what I understand the word secular to mean throughout the rest of this essay:
Definition of SECULAR
1a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal b : not overtly or specifically religious c : not ecclesiastical or clerical
If we understand secular to mean “of this world,” then yes, the Constitution establishes a secular government. However, it is my contention that the average person understands secular to mean “not overtly religious.” This is the definition I understand those who claim our government is secular to be using, and it is the definition I use here. In this sense, I reject the notion that the founders established a secular government.
First, the founders never intended for the Declaration of Independence to be separated from the Constitution. They understood the Declaration to be an acknowledgment of our rights as inalienable and given to us by God:
“The Declaration of Independence… [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and the rights of man.”
–Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Adams Wells, May 12, 1821
They believed this was self-evident, and thus, it was unnecessary to spell out everything that implies:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
–Thomas Jefferson, (Declaration of Independence)
[As an aside, it should be noted that Jefferson’s use of “the pursuit of happiness” does not refer to the right to do as we please, he was referring to Locke’s notion of happiness as it relates to liberty.]
In this sense, the founders understood the Declaration to be the “what” and the “why” of America:
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion”.
–Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825
By this understanding, the U.S. Constitution then becomes little more than the “how” or the map by which we protect and preserve these rights and liberties. The author of the Constitution agreed:
“On the distinctive principles of the Government … of the U. States, the best guides are to be found in… The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental Act of Union of these States.”
–James Madison, letter to Thomas Jefferson, February 8, 1825
Finally, the founders clearly told us that the Constitution was never intended to be and had not yet been separated from the Declaration:
“Before the formation of this Constitution…[t]his Declaration of Independence was received and ratified by all the States in the Union and has never been disannulled.”
That separation didn’t happen until after the Civil War, with the rise of what later became known as the Progressive movement. Before that time, the Constitution was never understood to be a secular document or to have established a government free of religion: certainly not in the modern sense of the debate. This is because it is impossible to make an intellectually honest argument that the Declaration of Independence is secular, and when it is properly joined with the Constitution, it becomes equally impossible to argue that it is secular, either. [For a solid, scholarly, and in my opinion, definitive defense of the wording of the Declaration of Independence as being solidly based in Scriptural language and philosophy, please see “Defending the Declaration” by Gary T. Amos.]
Now, does this mean that the Constitution mandates religion? No. The founders were very clear on this issue:
“It is to be apprehended that Jews, Mahometans, pagans, &c., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mohametans, or any other who are not professed of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President or other high office, but in one of two cases. First, if the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves. Another case is if any persons of such descriptions should, notwithstanding their religion, acquire the confidence and esteem of the people of America by their good conduct and practice of virtue, they may be chosen.”
–Gov. Samuel Johnston, at the Constitutional ratification convention.
So, clearly, the founders did not intend that non-Christians could never be elected to federal office, and I have never made this argument. But it is equally clear that they never intended for the people of America to become so distanced from Christianity as to not elect Christians to public office.
“When you become entitled to exercise the right of voting for public officers, let it be impressed on your mind that God commands you to choose for rulers, ‘just men who will rule in the fear of God.’ The preservation of [our] government depends on the faithful discharge of this Duty; if the citizens neglect their Duty and place unprincipled men in office, the government will soon be corrupted; laws will be made, not for the public good so much as for selfish or local purposes; corrupt or incompetent men will be appointed to execute the Laws; the public revenues will be squandered on unworthy men; and the rights of the citizen will be violated or disregarded. If [our] government fails to secure public prosperity and happiness, it must be because the citizens neglect the Divine Commands, and elect bad men to make and administer the Laws.”
“Providence has given our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as privilege and interest, of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
Which takes us to the founders’ assertion that a people can remain free and self-governing only so long as they remain moral and virtuous:
“A general dissolution of the principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy…. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader…. If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.”
“The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a great Measure, than they have it now. They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty.”
But the founders went on to tell us that morality and virtue can be maintained only in conjunction with religion, and more specifically, only that religion which teaches we will be judged in the next life for how we lived in this one. Allow me to let the founders hammer this point home, themselves:
“There are three points of doctrine the belief of which forms the foundation of all morality. The first is the existence of God; the second is the immortality of the human soul; and the third is a future state of rewards and punishments. Suppose it possible for a man to disbelieve either of these three articles of faith and that man will have no conscience, he will have no other law than that of the tiger or the shark. The laws of man may bind him in chains or may put him to death, but they never can make him wise, virtuous, or happy.”
— John Quincy Adams
“The only foundation for… a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”
–Dr. Benjamin Rush
“Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is impossible that a nation of infidels or idolaters should be a nation of freemen. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
“Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty.”
And they further told us that this makes the law (i.e. Constitution) a direct support of those aspects connected to religion and faith (the Declaration of Independence).
“Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other. The divine law, as discovered by reason and the moral sense, forms an essential part of both.”
— James Wilson, Signer of the Constitution
“Indeed, the right of a society or government to [participate] in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well being of the state and indispensable to the administrations of civil justice. The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion—the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility to Him for all our actions, founded upon moral accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues—these never can be a matter of indifference in any well-ordered community. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how any civilized society can well exist without them.”
–Joseph Story, Supreme Court Justice
“[T]he primary objects of government are the peace, order, and prosperity of society. . . . To the promotion of these objects, particularly in a republican government, good morals are essential. Institutions for the promotion of good morals are therefore objects of legislative provision and support: and among these . . . religious institutions are eminently useful and important. . . . [T]he legislature, charged with the great interests of the community, may, and ought to countenance, aid and protect religious institutions—institutions wisely calculated to direct men to the performance of all the duties arising from their connection with each other, and to prevent or repress those evils which flow from unrestrained passion.”
–Oliver Ellsworth, Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court
This understanding, as I have described it and as reflected in our founders’ words – is the very essence of John Locke’s theory of Natural Rights, Natural Law and the Social Contract; the theory upon which our system of government was built; a theory which – as Locke, himself, explains – is traced directly to the Bible. It would be very difficult to accept that such men would intentionally establish a government that was purposely designed to remove God from the conduct of our government officials while in public life.
Take these words:
“Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“…Virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone that renders us invincible. These are the tactics we should study. If we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed…so long as our manners and principles remain sound, there is no danger.”
Now consider these:
“(T)he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; …the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained…”
“I never … believed there was one code of morality for a public and another for a private man.”
–Thomas Jefferson, In a letter to Don Valentine de Feronda, 1809
If we seek to justify those last two quotes against each other, it would seem that many of the founders saw no difference between the public and private morality of any individual. In fact, this is why John Adams said these words:
“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have… a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean the characters and conduct of their rulers.”
Adams was talking about the character and conduct of our representatives – both public and private. The modern notion that they are different or that they can be separated is a sign that our nation has lost the virtue necessary to remain a free and self-governing people.
So, I state my position as to the founders’ original intentions now, and as clearly as I can: The founders possessed – almost to a man – a deep faith in God. They were not deists as we are taught today, and their words make this clear (Even Jefferson and Franklin spoke of their belief that God actively governs in the affairs of man, a belief that Paine still held at the time of the Revolution.) They did not intend for a person to have to meet a religious test in order to hold office in the federal government of this nation, but neither did they intend for any member of the federal government to not live his faith openly. Were they alive today, I am confident they would have no problem with the ten commandments being placed in our court rooms, or with any other religious material that teaches a doctrine of eternal life and a judgment in the next life in relation to how we live in this one. In fact, our founders clearly said that it was only in the adherence to our faith that we could maintain our liberty. Therefore, it is inconceivable to me that such men, after writing the things I have quoted, would then design a government that was meant to be divorced from the very traits they so clearly stated are necessary to sustain a free and self-governing people. To have done so would have been to establish a self-defeating government according to their own beliefs. The founders were many things, and several of them were deeply flawed human beings, but they were very rational men, men who prided themselves on their command of reason. I simply cannot accept that they would have intentionally contradicted themselves by designing such a government. Consequently, I reject the argument that the Constitution is secular and was ever intended to establish a secular government.
Now, as to the consequences of our society’s crusade to remove God from all aspects of our government, I will leave you to consider these words:
“When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”
“Virtue is harder to be got than a knowledge of the world; and, if lost in a young man, is seldom recovered.”
But if these words be thought insufficient, may I offer those of another “supposed” deist among our founders:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.