Christian Influence on the Constitution

A debate continues to rage in America over the question of the influence of Christianity on the Constitution.  Although the historical record is clear on the subject—by far the majority of the men who framed the Constitution were Christians; men who were guided by the moral law (known in Western culture as the common law) in all their deliberations. Nonetheless, highly educated people continue to claim that the Constitution is a “Godless document.”  For example, two professors from Cornell University authored a book titled, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness in which they attempt to make the point that although the framers were God-fearing men, they purposefully created a radically “Godless,” secular document. In spite of their impressive academic credentials, much of what these two professors—Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore—wrote appears to be based more on political bias than historical facts.

In coming to the conclusions set forth in their book, Professors Kramnick and Moore took an approach to their research that is always appealing to those who want to make a specific point but one that lacks scholarly integrity. They conducted selective research and limited their citations primarily to the writings of those who were critics of the Constitution at the time of its framing.  This would be like scholars 200 years from now researching America’s attitudes toward abortion in the year 2015 but limiting their research and citations to the writings of those who supported abortion. This approach is not likely to paint an accurate picture.

Primarily anti-federalists, these critics were angry that the Constitution did not contain specific references to God and Christianity.  But what Professors Kramnick and Moore fail to reveal to their readers is why the Constitution’s framers chose to leave Christian-specific references out of the Constitution.  Being Federalists, they believed that type of wording should be left to the individual states and their constitutions. The framers did not want the federal government tampering with the issue of religion.  Rather they believed that matters of this much importance should be left to what were then the more important elements of government: state legislatures, executives, and judiciaries.

Professors Kramnick and Moore made the common but inexcusable error of applying their 21st century mindset to events that occurred in the 18th century when things were much different than they are now.  It is always difficult for scholars to place themselves in the minds, hearts, and worldviews of people in history, but scholarly integrity requires a better effort than that put forth by Kramnick and Moore.  The writings of the time—for example in this case the Federalist Papers—help scholars grasp how people thought during the framing of the Constitution.  Because of the King of England, serving as the head of the Church of England, attempted to force his religious affiliation on the American colonies and tax them to support the church, the framers wanted to ensure that the federal government they established would be unable to do the same thing.  They were not opposed to religion—in fact they were almost exclusively men of strong faith.  Rather, they were opposed to tyrannical meddling in the religious affairs of individual Americans by an all-powerful federal government.

Professors Kramnick and Moore also cite the religious test ban found in Article VI of the Constitution as “evidence” that the framers were anti-religious in their attitudes toward the Constitution.  But, once again, their reasoning and research are faulty.  Many state constitutions at the time included provisions for religious tests.  In fact, in some states religious belief was a requirement for suffrage and for holding elective office.  The framers were well aware of these state-level requirements.  The framers were not opposed to religious tests per se.  They were just opposed to applying them at the federal level, which is why they banned them in Article VI for federal office holders.  Those who try to claim that Christianity had little or no influence on the framing of the Constitution are engaging in political subterfuge, not accurate historical research.

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