Skip to comments.A Godless Constitution?: A Response to Kramnick and Moore
Posted on 11/15/2004 9:39:55 AM PST by Conservative Coulter Fan
In their provocative polemic The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (W. W. Horton, 1996), Cornell University professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore argue that the God-fearing framers of the U. S. Constitution "created an utterly secular state" unshackled from the intolerant chains of religion. They purportedly find evidence for this thesis in the constitutional text, which they describe as radically "godless" and distinctly secular. Their argument, while an appealing antidote to the historical assertions of the religious right, is superficial and misleading.
There were, indeed, anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution who complained bitterly that the document's failure to invoke the Deity and include explicit Christian references indicated, at best, indifference or, at worst, hostility toward Christianity. This view, however, did not prevail in the battle to ratify the Constitution. The professor's inordinate reliance on the Constitution's most vociferous critics to describe and define that document results in misleading, if not erroneous, conclusions. Furthermore, like the extreme anti-Federalists of 1787, the professors misunderstand the fundamental nature of the federal regime and its founding charter.
The U. S. Constitution's lack of a Christian designation had little to do with a radical secular agenda. Indeed, it had little to do with religion at all. The Constitution was silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that, despite the framer's personal beliefs, religion was a matter best left to the individual citizens and their respective state governments (and most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment). The Constitution, in short, can be fairly characterized as "godless" or secular only insofar as it deferred to the states on all matters regarding religion and devotion to God.
Relationships between religion and civil government were defined in most state constitutions, and the framers believed it would be inappropriate for the federal government to encroach upon or usurp state jurisdiction in this area. State and local governments, not the federal regime, it must be emphasized, were the basic and vital political units of the day. Thus, it was fitting that the people expressed religious preferences and affiliations through state and local charters.
Professors Kramnick and Moore find further evidence for a godless Constitution in the Article VI religious test ban. Here, too, they misconstrue the historical record. Their argument rests on the false premise that, in the minds of the framers, support for the Article VI ban was a repudiation of state establishments of religion and a ringing endorsement of a radically secular polity. The numerous state constitutions written between 1776 and 1787 in which sweeping religious liberty and nonestablishment provisions coexisted with religious test oaths confirm the poverty of this assumption. The founding generation, in other words, generally did not regard such measures as incompatible.
The Article VI ban (applicable to federal officeholders only) was not driven by a radical secular agenda or a renunciation of religious tests as a matter of principle. The fact that religious tests accorded with popular wishes is confirmed by their inclusion in the vast majority of revolutionary era state constitutions.
Professors Kramnick and Moore also blithely ignore Article I, sec. 2 of the U. S. Constitution, which deferred to state qualifications for the electors of members of the U. S. House of Representatives. This provision is significant since the constitutional framers of 1787 knew that in some states--such as South Carolina--the requisite qualifications for suffrage included religious belief.
Significantly, there were delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who endorsed the Article VI ban but had previously crafted religious tests for their respective state constitutions. The constitutional framers did not appreciate this apparent contradiction, which arises under a secular construction of Article VI. The framers believed, as a matter of federalism, that the Constitution denied the national government all jurisdiction over religion, including the authority to administer religious tests. Many in founding generation supported a federal test ban because they valued religious tests required under state laws, and they feared that a federal test might displace existing state test oaths and religious establishments. In other words, support for the Article VI ban was driven in part by a desire to preserve and defend the instruments of "religious establishment" (specifically, religious test oaths) that remained in the states.
The late-eighteenth-century view of oaths and religious test bans is illustrated in state constitutions of the era. The Tennessee Constitution of 1796 included the language of the Article VI test ban; however, the same constitution states that "no person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State." Adopting a standard definition of oaths, the Kentucky Constitution of 1792, which omitted an express religious test but prescribed a basic oath of office, stated that required oaths and affirmations "shall be esteemed by the legislature [as] the most solemn appeal to God." This understanding of oaths, which was largely unchallenged in the founding era and frequently repeated in the state ratifying conventions, suggests that the U. S. Constitution, contrary to Professors Kramnick and Moore, was not entirely devoid of religious affirmations and did not create an utterly secular polity. The argument was made in ratifying conventions that the several constitutionally required oaths implicitly countenanced an acknowledgment of God (which, in a sense, constituted a general, nondenominational religious "test"), while the Article VI test ban merely proscribed sect-specific oaths for federal officeholders.
The debates in Article VI in state ratifying conventions further indicate that few, if any, delegates denied the advantage of placing devout Christians in public office. The issue warmly debated was the efficacy of a national religious test for obtaining this objective.
The Godless Constitution's lack of clear documentation is a disappointment. In order to examine the book's thesis more fully, I attempted to document the claims and quotations in the second chapter, which sets forth the case that the "principal architects of our national government envisioned a godless Constitution and a godless politics." It was readily apparent why these two university professors, who live in the world of footnotes, avoided them in this tract. The book is replete with misstatements or mischaracterizations of fact and garbled quotations. For example, the professors conflate two separate sections of New York Constitution of 1777 to support the claim that it "self-consciously repudiated tests" (p. 31). Contrary to this assertion, neither constitutional section expressly mentions religious tests and, indeed, test oaths were retained in the laws of New York well into the nineteenth century. The Danbury Baptists, for another example, did not ask Jefferson to designate "a fast day for national reconciliation" (pp.97, 119).
The book illustrates what is pejoratively called "law office history." That is, the authors, imbued with the adversary ethic, selectively recount facts, emphasizing data that support their own prepossessions and minimizing significant facts that complicate or conflict with their biases. The professors warn readers of this on the second page when they describe their book as a "polemic" that will " lay out the case for one" side of the debate on the important "role of religion in public and political life."
The suggestion that the U. S. Constitution is godless because it makes only brief mention of the Deity and Christian custom is superficial and misguided. Professors Kramnick and Moore succumb to the temptation to impose twentieth-century values on eighteenth-century text. Their book is less an honest appraisal of history than a partisan tract written for contemporary battles. They frankly state their desire that this polemic will rebut the "Christian nation" rhetoric of the religious right. Unfortunately, their historical analysis is as specious as the rhetoric they criticize.
[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . . . Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.(Source: John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1854), Vol. IX, p. 229, October 11, 1798.)
Funny atheists, tricks are for kids!
You'd help your case more if you didn't post garbage from Wallbuilders. They are error prone pseudo-historians and normally end up making our case look bad. There's substantially better, higher quality stuff out there that can withstand academic scrutiny unlike the tripe put out by David Barton and co. See http://www.libertyfund.org
No democracy on this planet has any "rights". All of URP and Canada have ZERO rights.. merely privledges offered by their governments. Big difference between rights and privledges..
Democracy also is the source of socialism. Democracy is the well socialism is drawn from.. Democracy sucks and so does its symptoms like socialism.. Socialism IS slavery by government and democracy is the root of it. Democrats are FOR democracy, ALL OF THEM.. Being for democracy in the U.S. is being against this Republic.. A democrat is seditious by the very meaning of the word and by the way in action too..
Democrat candidates for President for many years have ALL been abject traitors.. Traitor How.?. being for democracy that is how..
I spit on the words democrat and democracy and so should you.. unless you're a deep down democrat on the wrong forum.. or even a shallow democrat.. same thing..
Could you please explain your disdain for Dan Barton and WallBuilders, perhaps with some examples, and we'll go from there.
mark for later reference
Bump for later reading, as it deals with Article VI's ban on religious tests/oaths.
Hmmmm, sort of like John Kerry's plan to 'deferr' to the states on all matters of homosexual marriage.
Happily. First off, he's a shoddy and selective pseudo-historian. He's been caught several times previously using apocryphal quotations to support his claims about the founders. His "history" of the civil war is downright apalling in its ignorance and error, typically casting the south as "evil" while portraying Abe Lincoln, who is known to have varied between deism and atheism throughout his life but never Christianity, as a morally driven Christian hero. He glorifies radical reconstruction, which even Booker T. Washington condemned, and very selectively portrays the two factions of the time by downplaying the widely existant racism in the north. He wrote an article not too long ago "comparing" the reconstruction era political party platforms yet in reality he cherry-picked the racist sounding stuff from the Dems while willfully omitting the fact that the 1868 GOP platform explicitly said that blacks in the north should NOT be given voting rights like their southern counterparts. Those are just a few small examples of which I could give you dozens if you desire.
Second, he's a spewer of division who practices a latent form of bigotry that rears its ugly head from time to time. In the early 1990's Barton made a number of public appearances with Bo Gritz, aka David Duke's old runningmate. Since then he's begun spouting a very latent yet also very evident form of anti-catholic bigotry. I reviewed one of his recent Wallbuilders videos that was laced with loaded terminology and implications, essentially suggesting that the 17th century colonists to America were all fleeing persecution from church "heirarchy" (read: Rome) that supposedly derived extraneously from the "true" Bible. He makes the implication as a blanket statement for all the colonists when in fact it does not apply to any. The closest parallel was a single colony - massachusetts - that fled not from Rome or even the Anglicans as is commonly misrepresented, but rather out of a belief that they themselves were better than and more pure than the old churches, which they sought to reshape by example (and in some cases by force). Most of the other colonies were not of this nature and some were even officially Catholic (Maryland) and Anglican (Virginia).
Third, Barton is a flaming Democrat-style racial panderer. I have seen videos, heard eyewitness accounts, and read reports of him participating in cultish "apology" ceremonies in black churches on behalf of the Republican Party of Texas over slavery. It's run through a cult group called "Justice at the Gate" that has an unusually friendly relationship with the Republican Party of Texas through none other than Barton. One of the ceremonies singles out white participants in the audience and asks them to kneel before blacks in repentence. Another involves a bizarre ritual of "prayers" around an inanimate "slave kettle." If you did not know who its participants were you'd seriously think you were watching something out of the "white guilt" reparationist left.
Fourth, I've seen David Barton's political behavior in the Republican Party of Texas and find him to be a charlatan, fraud, and snake oil salesman on multiple counts. Mr. "Devout Christian" Barton participated in merciless underhanded smear campaigns during the last several state convention elections and disputes to consolidate his own political power. Last election his campaign handlers circulated photocopies of voting records with scurilous suggestions about his opponent under the name of a fake PAC that he pretended to have no affiliations with - something he would have gotten away with except for the fact that hidden files of the same documents were discovered on his webserver. During the convention he authored and distributed several letters to delegates loaded with outright false and slanderous information including one where he accused the opposition campaign of adding "personal injury lawyers" to their ticket. He has previously employed his weight as a (pseudo)historian to kill off modern rule and platform additions that he does not like by branding them as opposite of what the "founding fathers" wished when no reasonable relationship exists between the two.
Fifth, he has profitted immensely from his position in the Republican Party of Texas. Substantial portions of our state conventions are now used to promote Wallbuilders and his video and book sales - an opportunity not afforded to other organizations selling things. Segments from his videos are routinely shown on the main screen of the convention floor during floor activities, all with the hint that you can pick up your own (for a price, of course) at the Wallbuilder's booth prominently located front and center in the most visible location of the vendor's area. That sort of self-promotion through one's own position of power is brazen, shameless and IMHO outright immoral
We, the People of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do establish this Constitution.
We should just stick to the words of the Constitution, i.e., no religious establishment and no prevention of the free exercise of religion. No need to go beyond those concepts.
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