the Enlightenment legacy of Freedoms

The secular U. S. Constitution (1787): 'No religious test'
the document inspired by the Moderate Enlightenment, except for the secularity by the Radical Enlightenment

The debate over the ratification of
a secular and non-religious fundamental law for the United States of America
(1787-1790)


Introduction

One of the most significant features of the United States Constitution is that religion and religious beliefs are completely absent from the document, except to prohibit any 'religious test' qualification for any office or public trust. While this prohibition occasioned no great debate at the Constitutional Convention (Philadelphia, 1787) itself, it ignited a firestorm of controversy across the early post-Revolutionary United States in the ratification conventions of the several states and in the press (Kramnick & Moore, 1996).

There were those then (as now) who argued for a theocratic 'Christian commonwealth' and national laws upholding religious correctness. Then (as now) there were others, including the framers of the Constitution, who argued for a secular commonwealth, with full religious and civil liberty for all regardless of their beliefs. Fortunately for the modern world, the proponents of religious freedom carried the day (1789). However, the debate remains significant because of the recurrent theocratic impulse inherent in the 'conservative' and 'neoconservative' politics of our day.


U. S. Constitution, ARTICLE VI

   "This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.
   "The senators and representatives before-mentioned, and the 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; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

the last two paragraphs of the 6th Article


Below is a summary of vigorous pro and con arguments over the ratification of the secular U. S. Constitution and its 'no religious test' from the very period in which that battle was waged (1787-1790). Because of the influence of Deism (a naturalistic theology emphasizing science and reason) among many intellectuals of the day including many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution was often criticized during 1787-1788 as part of a Deist "conspiracy to overthrow the Christian commonwealth" (Ibid.).

The language and specific issues of the war may have changed, but the battle lines remain the same, in the eternal struggle between democracy and theocracy.

Arguments over U.S. Constitution: 1787 - 1790

Anti-Constitution
Proponents of religious correctness,
the theocratic right wing of that day
Pro-Constitution
Proponents of religious freedom and government neutrality, the democratic-republican wing
  • "and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they" concerns of Amos Singletary, state delegate in Massachusetts
  • "...a papist, a Mohomatan [sic], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government" a fear expressed in New Hampshire
  • "the exclusion of religious tests" was "dangerous and impolitic" and "pagans, deists, and Mahometans [sic] might obtain offices among us." Without a religious test, "to whom will they [officeholders] swear support the ancient pagan gods of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?" Henry Abbot, state delegate in North Carolina
  • Proposed Constitution opens door to "Jews and pagans of every kind" Rev. David Caldwell, Presbyterian minister, state delegate in North Carolina.
  • Recoiling "at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists, and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America" Maj. Thomas Lusk, state delegate in Massachusetts.
  • A North Carolina state convention delegate waved a pamphlet suggesting that the Pope of Rome might be elected President, and that in "the course of four or five hundred years.... Papists may occupy that [presidential] chair."
  • "as there will be no religious test [Quakers] will have weight, in proportion to their numbers, in the great scale of continental government" writer in the City Gazette, Charleston, South Carolina, January 3, 1788.
  • Anticonstitutional article in the New York Daily Advertiser, January 1788, reprinted within days in papers in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts: No religious test? Then federal offices will have "1st. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence 2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity 3dly. Deists, abominable wretches 4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain 5thly. Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil 6thly. Jews etc. etc." and because the President will have command of all militias, then "should he thereafter be a Jew, our dear posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem."
  • A writer calling himself "Philadelphiensis" (November 1787) complained about the framers' "silence" and "indifference toward religion."
  • A warning was given of "the pernicious effects" of the Constitution's "general disregard of religion," its "cold indifference towards religion" An anonymous writer, Virginia Independent Chronicle, October 1787. 
  • The "Constitution is de[i]stical in principle, and in all probability the composers had no thought of God in all their consultations" Thomas Wilson, Virginia.
  • In a pamphlet called "The Government of Nature Delineated or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution" one pamphleteer "Aristocrotis" of Carlisle, Pennsylvania attacked the supposedly naturalistic Constitution: "...there has never been a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion." The framers were trying to form "a government based upon nature." To the drafters of the Constitution, "[what] is the world to the federal government but as the drop of a bucket, or the small dust of the balance! What the world could not accomplish from the commencement of time till now, they easily performed in a few moments by declaring that 'no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust under the United States.'" Such however "is laying the ax to the root of the tree; whereas other nations only lopped off a few noxious branches." The "new Constitution, distains...belief of a deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body, a day of judgement, or a future state of rewards and punishments" because of the framers' deism. "If some religion must be had the religion of nature [Deism] will certainly be preferred by a government founded upon the law of nature. One great argument in favor of this religion, is that most member of the grand [Constitutional] convention are great admirers of it [Deism]; and they certainly are the best models to form our religious as well as our civil belief on."
  • "A Friend of the Rights of the People" from New Hampshire attacked "the discarding of all religious tests." "Will this be good policy to discard all religion?" The proposed Constitution notwithstanding, "it is acknowledged by all that civil government can't well be supported without the assistance of religion." No one "is fit to be a ruler of protestants, without he can honestly profess to be of the protestant religion."
  • One delegate in the New Hampshire state ratification convention went so far as to argue that under the Constitution, "congress might deprive the people of the use of the holy scriptures."
  • Another warned that Americans under the Constitution might be subject to divine judgment as Samuel the prophet said to Saul, "because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee" An Anti-Federalist writing in a Boston newspaper, January 10, 1788.
  • "without the presence of Christian piety and morals the best Republican Constitution can never save us from slavery and ruin" Charles Turner, Massachusetts Anti-Federalist.
  • "David" in the Massachusetts Gazette, March 7, 1788, praised Massachusetts' "religious test, which requires all public officers to be of some Christian, protestant persuasion" in contrast to the federal Constitution's "public inattention" and "leaving religion to shift wholly for itself." "...it is more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the publick protection of religion."
  • Letter to the Virginia ratifying convention (June 1788) called for Christian academies to be set up "at every proper place throughout the United States" where youth could be taught "the principles of the Christian religion without regard to any sect, but pure and unadulterated as left by its divine author and his apostle." If established, "we would have fewer law suits, less backbiting, slander, and mean observations, more industry, justice and real happiness than at present."
  • A motion to amend the Preamble to the Constitution by William Williams, a state delegate in Connecticut: "We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: That He will requireof all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence on His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union, etc., as it is expressed in the present introduction, do ordain, etc." The Connecticut state convention rejected the motion (1788).
  • A motion was proposed in the Virginia state convention to amend ARTICLE VI itself: "no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil." Rejected. 
  • In February 1788, James Madison twice defended the 'no religious test' clause of ARTICLE VI in the Federalist Nos. 51, 56 "as one of the glories of the new Constitution" (Kramnick & Moore, 1996). "The door of the Federal Government, is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether old or young, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any profession of religious faith."
  • Tenche Coxe, wealthy Philadelphian merchant, former member of the Continental Congress, October 1787: "No religious test is ever to be required" of public officers in America, unlike Spain, Italy, and Portugal which barred Protestants, or "in England, every Presbyterian, and other person not of their established church, is incapable of holding an office." The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (1787) had "the honor of proposing the first public act, by which any nation" allowed public service to "any wise or good citizen." "Danger from ecclesiastical tyranny, that long standing and still remaining curse of the people can be feared by no man in the United States" and compared the future US with Holland "an asylum of religious liberty."
  • James Iredell, North Carolina, future US Supreme Court associate justice: The Constitution's ban on religious tests (a form of "descrimination") embodies the "principle of religious freedom" so that "representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans" may be chosen by the citizenry. "[I]s it possible to exclude any set of men"? Such exclusion lays "the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world." 
  • Virginia Baptist leader John Leland praised ARTICLE VI of the Constitution "as consistent with his conviction that the integrity of religious faith is best served by no government involvement" (Ibid., p. 39).
  • Samuel Spencer, North Carolina called for religion to stand independent "without any connection with temporal authority."
  • Rev. Samuel Langdon, New Hampshire state delegate: The 'no religious test' clause was "one of the great ornaments of the Constitution" and proclaimed that he "took a general view of religion as unconnected with and detached from the civil power that [as] it was an obligation between God and his creatures, the civil authority could not interfere without infringing upon the rights of conscience."
  • Rev. Daniel Shute, Congregational minister, state delegate in Massachusetts: "Who should be excluded from national trusts? What ever bigotry may suggest, the dictates of candor and equity, I conceive, will be, none" even "those who have no other guide, in the way of virtue and heaven, than the dictates of natural religion [i.e., Deism]."
  • Rev. Isaac Backus, distinguished Baptist, Massachusetts state delegate: "Nothing is more evident, both in reason and The Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and, therefore, no man or men can impose any religious test without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ.... And let the history of all nations be searched... and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests had been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world."
  • One "Elihu" (actually radical Deist Elihu Palmer) wrote an avowedly radical Deist defense of the Constitution in Massachusetts and Connecticut newspapers, February 1788 of the Constitution as "a rational document for a wise people and an enlightened age" (Kramnick & Moore, 1996). The old times had passed away "when nations could be kept in awe with stories of God's sitting with legislators and dictating laws" Now no religious or civil authorities could use religion "to establish their own power on the credulity of the people, shackling their uninformed minds with incredible tales." "[T]he light of philosophy has arisen... miracles have ceased, oracles are silenced, monkish darkness is dissipated.... Mankind are no longer to be delude with fable." Those assembled at the Constitutional Convention had refused "to dazzle even the superstitious, by a hint of grace or ghostly knowledge. They 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, not even a god appears in a dream to propose any part of it." 
  • William Van Murray, Esq., in a 1787 essay in the American Museum, wrote that America "will be the great philosophical theater of the world," because the Constitution recognizes that "Christians are not the only people there." Furthermore, religious tests are "A VIOLATION of THE LAW OF NATURE." Governments are established according to the "laws of nature. These are unacquainted with the distinctions of religious opinion; and of the terms Christian, Mohamentan, Jew or Gentile."
  • John Adams, later the second President of the United States, wrote in 1786 that "the United States of America" is "the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature." Those who established the governments of the United States had not "had interviews with the gods [n]or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven." Government is "contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses." "Neither the people nor their conventions, committees, or subcommittees considered legislation in any other light than as ordinary arts and sciences, only more important.... The people were universally too enlightened to be imposed on by artifice.... [G]overnments thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone without a pretense of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favour of the rights of mankind."
  • "A Landholder" (actually Oliver Ellsworth, formerly a delegate to the Continental Convention, later in the 1st US Congress, and also Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court) in the Connecticut Courant, December 17, 1787 (and reprinted in neighboring states) wrote: "To come to the true principle. . . . The business of civil government is to protect the citizens in his rights. . . . civil government has no business to meddle with the private opinions of the people. . . . I am accountable not to man, but to God, for the religious opinions that I embrace. . . . A test law is . . . the offspring of error and the spirit of persecution. Legislatures have no right to set up an inquisition and examine into the private opinions of men."
(Arguments and references summarized in Kramnick & Moore, 1996).


Reference

Kramnick I, Moore RL. 1996. The Godless Constitution: The Case against Religious Correctness. New York, NY / London, UK: W. W. Norton & Company.



Enlightenment Legacy homepage.