The Constitution as a Religious Document? – Hidden Power of Words Series, #29

Scholars generally praise the Constitution of the United States (Bill of Rights included) because it does not mention a God or otherwise include Christianity. 

Historians add that this is a further indication, in concert with other founding texts, that the Founding Fathers did not establish (or long for) a so-called Christian Nation. These men were not even Christians, as they were deists, agnostics, or atheists (toward all Gods, not just the Christian one).

Scholars also contextualize this within intellectual movements, especially the Enlightenment, and political movements, namely (classical) liberalism, to further prove the Godlessness of the Constitution.

But, I have given this a good deal of thought this semester–prompted by readings and conversations with my students in Selected Topics: Atheists, Other “Heathens,” and 20th C. United States History–and think an argument can be made that the Constitution of the United States is actually a religious document, not because of what it says but what it doesn’t say.

The Constitution does not spell out guarantees for equality and rights – it spells out and codifies class-, sex-, and race-based inequalities.

The Constitution does not say religion cannot be used in any regard when it comes to State business – it spells out a society that has and uses religion.

The Constitution does not fully adopt secular principles otherwise embraced in the 1780s.

And, even in terms of what it does say, the Constitution has roots that establish it as a religious text of sorts. The inequalities it embraces to further the United States (and undo any progress made by the American Revolution) have important roots in Christian texts and theologies, including the Biblical. The Bible (as often interpreted) condones classism, imperialism, racism, sexism (patriarchy)–all of which are celebrated in the Constitution of the United States.

On another note–thinking intertextuality–the Constitution must be considered in terms of its state counterparts. The Constitution originally only protected citizens (i.e., free wealthy White men) at the Federal level. Individual states were free to act in wildly-divergent ways. These state governments could and did establish state religions, for example. 

Further, given that individual states originally had much more power than the State (i.e., the nation), questions about the Constitution of the United States’s religious nature or lack thereof cannot be examined in isolation. Each state’s foundational texts were (and are) often more/very overtly religious. 

Governments function with a multitude of written and unwritten texts. Even the “Constitution of the United States,” as I have written about in other articles, includes much more than what is officially written.

While different, we should also note that the Constitution of the United States establishes a civil religion.

Words are important, both those used and not used.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

(For somewhat related thoughts, please see “The Rhetoric of Exclusion: Assumed vs. Stated” here, “The (Many) Imagined Constitution(s)” here, and “It’s Not “the Government” here.)



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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15 replies

  1. very thought-provoking words. However, I am not convinced until I see all evidence spelled out/cited. But then, this is not a publication in a peer-reviewed journal, so I cannot expect to see it all listed, although the refs you do give might give me some of the evidence I want to see.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m wondering what kind of evidence would help clarify and justify my argument, please. For me, these are things that I have studied and thought about so much that my thinking on this matter is a bit skewed.

      But, the book “Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification” does come to mind. It basically argues that the Constitution created an Oligarchy, not a Republic or Democracy.

      Also, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” has great information on the Founding Fathers and other “heathens” in US history. Although, this book would disagree with my arguments here.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. But consider: there is a logical fallacy in the proposition that because religions condone inequalities, and the Constitution also condones them (sometimes overtly, sometimes silently), then the Constitution must be a religious document. If the sky is blue, and the ocean is blue, that doesn’t mean that the sky is an ocean.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do not consider that what Dr. Pegoda says can be simplified or summarized in the statement, “there is a logical fallacy in the proposition that because religions condone inequalities, and the Constitution also condones them (sometimes overtly, sometimes silently), then the Constitution must be a religious document.” EB, what you say here is a logical statement but not the equivalent of what Dr. Pegoda says, although it is very tempting to reduce a longer statement to that level.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, EB, Dr. Hyde, and Professor Longest.

      I would also say that my argument is not a logical fallacy. My argument considers the context and intertextuality (across time and place – even extended to the present, as I explain here in another context: https://andrewpegoda.com/2015/05/04/history-intertextuality-and-how-barack-obama-has-influenced-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-not-the-other-way-around/) of the Constitution as a text, as well as the origins of the ideologies it manifests. I am still developing these ideas, and I know it would probably help to have more detail and more evidence. I like to use my blog to develop ideas and to “see” how they “look” in print.

      I having a running list of articles I want to write and publish as a book. This might be one of them, depending on where the ideas goes from here.

      My PhD minor, for purposes of PhD exams, was Revolutionary America, so this is an era I have studied in more depth than other eras/places, except for 20th/21st C. US.

      A Facebook friend, suggested that I read Steven K. Green’s book, “Inventing a Christian Nation: The Myth of the Religious founding” – they said this book makes arguments similar to mine. I haven’t read this one, but plan to do so and might write a blog about it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just to add to my previous comment:
      From the perspective of intertextuality, the Constitution could well be a religious document in 2018 (at least to some people, and not in terms of “civil religion,” but Christianity or another theistic religion) and the exact same document could not be a religious, theistic document in say c. 1910, during the “Golden Age of Free Thought,” when the US was increasingly secular. There are no fixed, essentialists meanings.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “an argument can be made that the Constitution of the United States is actually a religious document, not because of what it says but what it doesn’t say.

      The Constitution does not spell out guarantees for equality and rights – it spells out and codifies class-, sex-, and race-based inequalities.”

      That quotation from your post, Dr. Pegoda, is what led me to say that you’re putting forth a statement that is not logical. The Star Spangled Banner doesn’t call for racial and gender equality either, but it is not a religious song in the sense ordinarily meant by “religious.” To be religious, a document (or song) must reference a higher being — a specific higher being — as the assumed grounding for the document (or song) itself. The Constitution does not do that. It merely allows individuals to pursue religious activities as they see fit.

      But I agree that over time, the Constitution has been inevitably contextualized by different people in different eras, influenced by their own tendencies and by currents in the culture of the time.

      Like

    • Texts must always be read within historical contexts. We must also consider the meanings involved. Sometimes–rather frequently–texts state meanings in coded ways. I’ve written about this at length in various places in terms of “the rhetoric of implied exclusion.”

      For example, we know that when politicians in the 1960s and 1970s started talking about needing “law and order” they meant “control of Black people.”

      In another example, some of the Negro Spirituals are not at all overtly religious or rebellious–for the safety of the enslaved–but de-coded and historicized, they are rich with religious and rebellious messages.

      In yet another example, it matters that queer people were (and sometimes continue to be) deliberately left out of political speeches and civil rights bills.

      It always matters what is and what is not included in any given text.

      Your example of the Star Spangled Banner and equality is kind of ridiculous and completely missing my argument, as well as theories of historical interpretation and intertextuality.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve given us a lot to think about. I think EB misapplied what you said.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dr. Pegoda, you make a very good point about how the Constitution could be considered a religious document or not, depending upon the time period you consider. After all, didn’t our founding fathers (except Thomas Jefferson, its author*) want to produce an enduring statement?

    *Clay Jenkins (in his weekly radio broadcast https://jeffersonhour.com/episodes/) keeps telling us that Thomas Jefferson thought we should develop a new Constitution every once in a while, oh, say, every 20 years. Obviously there were some, who won the argument, who did not want to face the grueling task of writing a new one that often.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. as to “I’m wondering what kind of evidence would help clarify and justify my argument, please”
    I wish I could help you with this right now, but I am swamped. I am not sure that I have that much interest in this topic, anyway. But, over time, I know my mind might want to wander there, especially if something relevant comes up in the news, which, given the penchant for chaos by a certain person in the White House, could happen randomly at any time.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Do you think the newer generation will used the Constitution in the same way the older generation has? Maybe they will start to separate the too and mainly just focus on the law part because most people are becoming more spiritual and non-religious. Should there be a law in place saying you can’t use the constitution in that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Christy, you make a good point but the Supreme court would probably say that the law is unconstitutional because it limits free speech. Imagine, free interpretation of the Constitution might even be considered limiting free speech. Given some past rulings, I would not be surprised. After all, if corporations can be counted as voters, then free interpretation of the Constitution may well be considered free speech.

      Like

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