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
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
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.
1. Daniel L. Dreisbach, D. Phil. (Oxford University) and J.
D. (University of Virginia), is an associate professor at American University
in Washington, D. C.. He is the author of Religion and Politics in the
Early Republic (University Press of Kentucky, 1996), and Real
Threat and Mere Shadow: Religious Liberty and the First Amendment
(Crossway Books, 1987).
Copyright 1997 by Daniel L. Dreisbach. All rights reserved. Used by
permission of the author.
Dreisbach, Daniel, L. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church
and State (NYU Press, 2003).
———–. “‘Sowing Useful Truths and Principles’: The
Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the ‘Wall of Separation.'” Journal
of Church and State 39 (Summer 1997).
———–. “In Search of a Christian Commonwealth: An Examination of
Selected Nineteenth-Century Commentaries on References to God and the Christian
Religion in the United States Constitution.” Baylor Law Review
48 (1996): 927-1000.
———–. “The Constitution’s Forgotten Religion Clause: Reflections
on the Article VI Religious Test Ban.” Journal of Church and State
38 (1996): 261-295.