Articles Ethics Government Law
God and the Constitution
Nov 4, 2005
1

An emailer to American Vision made the following comment in response to a guest column written by David New, Esq.[1]

Perhaps the author is not familiar with the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .”, or Article 4, Section 3, “. . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

There are various theories as to why the Constitution makes no direct reference to God. The founders certainly were not atheists, since they dated their action in terms of Anno Domini, “The Year of our Lord.” Documents leading up to the convention were generally religious, and in many cases particularly Christian. The Philadelphia convention was represented by numerous Christian sects: Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, Quaker, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Deist.[2] The Episcopalians predominated numerically. “James Madison tells us there was ‘discord of religious opinions within the convention,’ which undoubtedly kept theological controversy off the floor.”[3] Some maintain that the proliferation of religious opinions among the delegates steered the convention away from including specific religious language in the Constitution.

This led the representatives to guard the states from federal intrusion, preserving the authority of the states to establish their own religious parameters. Let the several states work out religious issues on their own terms. There was no need for the federal government to meddle in an area in which the national government would have no jurisdiction. The prohibition of a religious test “as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” applied only to national office holders: congressmen, senators, the president, and Supreme Court Justices. States were free to apply their own test and oath, which they did. Of course, there was no law against people from pooling their voting strength and putting it behind a candidate holding certain religious and moral values.



The First Amendment, which only addresses Congress, as well as the “no religious test” provision, “are expressly made to apply to the general government alone. They do not apply to the States. It may have been the intent in framing the Constitution to assign the matter of religion to the domain of the States, rather than to accomplish an elimination of all religious character from our civil institutions.”[4] In his Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779–1845) writes, “Thus, the whole power over the subject of religion was left exclusively to the State governments, to be acted on according to their own sense of justice, and the State Constitutions.”[5]

Story’s Commentary clearly shows that the First Amendment was designed to prohibit the federal establishment of a national Church or the official preference of a particular Christian sect over all others. The First Amendment, according to Story, was not designed to disestablish the Christian religion at the state level:

Probably, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the . . . [First Amendment], the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State, so far as such encouragement was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.[6]

While the national government garnished some new powers as a result of the ratification of the Constitution, denying the states jurisdiction over religious issues was not one of them. The Tenth Amendment supports this view: “The powers, not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.” In the Circuit Court of Tennessee, August 1, 1891, the Court said, “As a matter of fact they (the founders of our government) left the States the most absolute power on the subject, any of them might, if they chose, establish a creed and a church and maintain them.”[7]

Endnotes:

[1] Where is God in the Constitution?—Part 2
[2] M.E. Bradford, A Worthy Company: The Dramatic Story of the Men Who Founded Our Country (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, [1982] 1988).
[3] R. Kemp Morton, God in the Constitution (Nashville, TN: Cokesbury Press, 1933), 71.
[4] Isaac A. Cornelison, The Relation of Religion to Civil Government in the United States of America: A State Without a Church, but Not Without a Religion (New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1895), 94.[
5] Joseph Story, Commentary on the Constitution of the United States (Boston, MA: Hilliard, Gray, and Co., 1833), 702–703. Story served as a justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845.
[6] Joseph Story, A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States (Lake Bluff, IL: Regnery Gateway, [1859] 1986), 316.
[7] The Federal Reporter, vol. 46, 912. Quoted in Cornelison, Relation of Religion to Civil Government in the United States of America, 95.

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About author

Gary DeMar

Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).

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