“Since most of the Framers of the Constitution were members of churches, Bible societies, etc., how can you deny that they established a Christian government?”
By Ed Buckner
This question betrays a common, pervasive misunderstanding of the purpose and meaning of separation of church and state. It is similar to the attacks based on the claims of some religionists that governmental neutrality on religion is impossible, and it comes up often when church-state issues hit the news, as the recent furor over the Pledge did. Those who, foolishly, want to amend the First Amendment, often make such claims. The claim that most of the framers of the Constitution were orthodox Christians is almost certainly false, but the more telling point is that it would be irrelevant even if it were true.
Some of the delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention were members of churches or Bible societies, etc. (though that was not proof of piety then any more than such facts are now), but many more were not. As one historian wrote, “Although it [the Constitutional Convention of 1787] had its share of strenuous Christians like Strong and Bassett, ex-preachers like Baldwin and Williamson, and theologians like Johnson and Ellsworth, the gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were under control or had even flickered out. Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their part of the country—the New Englanders Congregationalists and Presbyterians, the Southerners Episcopalians, and the men of the Middle States everything from backsliding Quakers to stubborn Catholics—and most were men who could take their religion or leave it alone. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim that his opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit.” (Clinton Rossiter, American historian, “The Men of Philadelphia,” in 1787: The Grand Convention, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987 [first ed., 1966], pp. 147-148.)
The Constitution that the framers agreed on and that the States ratified is neutral regarding religion, and not by accident. All the precedents, all the previous governing documents they had to draw from, were not neutral. The usual pattern was to invoke one form or another of “Almighty God” or of “The Lord” as the ultimate authority for the charter—until the Constitution’s “We the people . . .” broke that precedent in 1787. The framers, whatever their personal religious preferences, consciously decided that the federal government had no business making religious decisions for U.S. citizens.
The framers’ preference for neutrality was strongly reinforced a few years later when the U.S. Senate passed unanimously, and President John Adams signed on 10 June 1797, a treaty with Tripoli that included this famous phrase: “As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion, . . .” The full treaty was published in many newspapers of the day. There was no outraged uproar from the Christians of that day, because the public then understood that the religious or irreligious preferences of the framers were not the point. Governmental neutrality regarding religion was what counted, because only with neutrality is sustained religious liberty possible.
©2002 Ed Buckner, Council for Secular Humanism, www.secularhumanism.org
For more reading, in addition to the sources cited above, see:
Rob Boston. Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church & State, Prometheus Books, 1993.
Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner, editors. Quotations that Support the Separation of State and Church, second edition. Freethought Press (Atlanta Freethought Society), 1995. (The quotes in the above essay and many more details on the 1796-97 Treaty with Tripoli are included in this book, which is still in print and available from AFS.)
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.