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.)