The U.S. Constitution is 100 Percent Secular—or Is It?

A novel focused on atheism and Christian apologeticsIn other blog posts, I’ve made the point that the secular U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from getting involved with religion, which makes the best environment for both atheists and Christians. However, on several occasions, I’ve gotten pushback that the Constitution isn’t secular.

Let’s first consider a historic document that is easily seen to be religious, the Mayflower Compact (1620). It’s quite short, and the majority of the body is here:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.

This is one of the documents that David Barton likes to use while bending history to take on his preconception of America as a Christian nation. There are also several federal Thanksgiving declarations that acknowledge the Christian god. For example, George Washington in 1789 created the first national Thanksgiving Day with this statement:

[Congress requests that the president] 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.

The constitution of the Confederate States (1861) was adopted with few changes from the U.S. Constitution, one being the addition of “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in the preamble.

When we read the U.S. Constitution, this overtly Christian language isn’t there. Neither is the vaguely deist language, as was present in the Declaration of Independence. It’s 100% secular. It’s not God making this constitution; it begins, in big letters, We the People. In fact, Article 6 says in part, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

But is it secular? Some Christians assert that it’s not. The first example is from Article 1:

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 other words, it recognized Sunday as a holiday. The second example is the wrapup in Article 7:

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.

In other words, it replaces AD (Anno Domini—“in the year of our Lord”) with its English translation.

That’s it?? Those are the powerful counterexamples? Compare this to the Mayflower Compact—a constitution with some balls that not only acknowledged God’s existence but said that the entire project was for his glory.

That Sunday was a holiday simply acknowledges the custom of the people of the time. Spelling out AD and saying that this acknowledges Yahweh is like saying that the use of the names Thursday, Friday, and Saturday acknowledges the gods Thor, Frigg, and Saturn, respectively. Or that the use of the names May and June acknowledges the Roman goddesses Maia and Juno. “AD” is just another part of the same calendar.

The final irony is that “in the year of our Lord” isn’t even correct from a Christian standpoint. The few clues we have of Jesus’s birth in the gospels make clear that he wasn’t born in the year 1 but probably around 5 BCE.

So, yes, the Constitution does reflect the customs and calendar of the people of the time. But it’s still obviously and boldly secular. And isn’t that the best for everyone who is governed by it?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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9 thoughts on “The U.S. Constitution is 100 Percent Secular—or Is It?

  1. We can stipulate that the Constitution is not the document that shows the intent of the Founding Fathers to use Chrsitian principles. Recently, I read a piece, however that shows that the Declaration is the WHY, the Constitution is the HOW. Since the Founders didn’t intend to institute a theocracy, it is completely reasonable that they didn’t put much about God in the HOW to RUN THE COUNTRY document, the Constitution.

    So to find out what the same guys (for the most part—lots of overlap between the Declaration signers and the Constitution signers) were thinking, you go to the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. Lots of evidence there that they were using Judeo-Christian principles and they were doing their thinking based on the idea that “all men are CREATED equal and are ENDOWED BY THEIR CREATOR with certain INALIENABLE RIGHTS.” (Emphasis added.) That shows why they established the God-given rights that they did and enshrined those rights in the Constitution.

    But nope, they didn’t repeat them in the legal document establishing the workings of government. That doesn’t mean their belief in God was any less. It just wasn’t the time and place to repeat them.

    • Since the Founders didn’t intend to institute a theocracy, it is completely reasonable that they didn’t put much about God in the HOW to RUN THE COUNTRY document, the Constitution.

      We can agree that they didn’t intend a theocracy. But there are a lot of gradations between theocracy at one end of the spectrum and 100% secular country at the other. The secular nature of the Constitution shows that they intended a secular government.

      I plan a post on the Declaration of Independence in a week or so.

      I agree–most of the founding fathers were Christian, but that’s not the point. They might have preferred beer to wine or beef to chicken, but that’s also not the point. We’re trying to figure out what kind of a country they created for us. And the fact that the Constitution is 100% secular answers that.

      • Hooray! Sounds like we agree! The Constitution is secular, the principles are not necessarily… Looking forward to the discussion of the Declaration.

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  3. I am getting a little tired of people referring to the “Founding Fathers” as if they were some sort of ant colony of individuals sharing the same brain.
    History points to these people being as different and varied as any group of people today. I assume some were very religious and some were not. But they were also a product of their era. My own father, born in ’32 in Italy, referred to people in general as “Christians”. He would say things like “there must have been 200 christians on the bus today”.
    My father was very close to being an atheist. I know he was a socialist for a large part of his life. He used the term “Christian” to define “people”, but if someone quoted him for posterity we would certainly deduct he was a very pious man.
    He was simply using a term that few people would use in Italy today but that then was accepted as having this alternate meaning.

    The founding fathers refer to a “creator” and use other religious terms in official documents and other writings but how much of their terminology was used simply for lack of a better terms or because of convention?

    • I’ve heard the word “souls” used in this way–“there were 200 souls on the bus today,” for example.

      I plan a post next week to discuss the Declaration of Independence.

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  5. Honestly, this is a difficult agrument from both view points. I listen to arguments on both sides of this argument. The problem stems form the fact that people want to interpret THE CONSTITUTION as either a secular or a christian document.

    Atheists try to say that it was written by non believers. They point to the views of many of men that may have been non believers at the time they penned the Constitution. They also point out the fact that The Constitution lacks the many laws of the Bible like of the Ten commandments.

    In spite of what Atheists say, The Constitution was written as a secular document because of religion. They were not trying to keep God out of the country because the founders did not believe in God. That is not what Atheists proclaim but that is how it comes across to me.

    It was evident that many our founding fathers were religious men. Many of the states they represented even implemented state religions. Some states even prevented atheists from holding public office. So there is no doubt in my mind that God played a very important role in the making of the constitution.

    With that being said, our founding father also realized that mixing church and state was very detrimental to both the people and the state. There are so many examples through out history in which either governments did bad things in the name of religion to either the people that lived in the state or neighboring states. Many people immigrated to the US escaping religious persecution. Some still do today.

    People didn’t really say they were Christian back in those days. They were either Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican, etc. None of these Christians ever saw eye to eye. It was vital that they were all able to practice there own beliefs without persecution from the state if they were all going to live in harmony together. The only way this kind of harmony could exist without destroying a nation or it’s people was to create a system of government in which religion was not the guide for the state. A secular government was the ideal way to allow individuals to practice what ever religion they wanted without fear of persecution. Having this in the founding document prevents the nation from ever incorporating a national religion without voiding the constitution itself.

    Most of the research I have done says that the majority of the population in the nation at that time were Protestants of some denomination. I have seen stats of various percentages but most agree that it was a significant percentage of the population. So it is naive to state that Christianity has nothing to do with our constitution. Religion played a large roll in the lives of Americans in those days including many of our founding fathers.

    Imagine where we would be today if they left freedom of religion out of the constitution all together. I am betting we would have had a holy war between the states fighting over which religion we should adopt. So in spite of what many atheists claim, Christianity has everything to do with the way the constitution was written. The Constitution was written as a Secular document to protect the various Christian groups and to protect the government as well.

    So in summary, I see the constitution as a secular document(intended to be so) written by men to create a system of government that protected all men and their religious beliefs which were primarily some form of Christianity in those days. I also believe that it is impossible to fully understand the first amendment without understanding the religious harmony our fore fathers intended to create. Harmony may be the wrong choice of words but you understand what I mean.

    • Though I’m not sure, I think we’re on the same page. My main point is getting Christians to realize that keeping the strong separation of church and state that the Constitution creates is not only mandatory (doesn’t much matter whether they like it or not–that’s what the Constitution says) but also the best thing for Christianity

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