Vol. 15 No.11 (November 2005), pp.1010-1013
THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION: A MORAL DEFENSE OF THE SECULAR STATE, by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 208pp. Paper. $14.95. ISBN: 0393328376
Reviewed by Stephen M. Feldman, Jerry W. Housel/Carl F. Arnold Distinguished Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Wyoming. Email: sfeldman [at] uwyo.edu
Is the constitutional system of the United States secular or religious? Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore argue in THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION that the framers of the national Constitution intended to create a secular government. Kramnick, a professor of government at Cornell, and Moore, a professor of American studies and history at Cornell, maintain that the Constitution is bereft of reliance on religion—it is godless. THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION is an expanded version of the authors’ THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION: THE CASE AGAINST RELIGIOUS CORRECTNESS, published in 1996. The new book has one additional chapter, “George W. Bush and the Wall of Separation.” As was true with the original edition, this book is aimed at the general reader and hence lacks footnotes, though it does include a brief “Note on Sources.”
After an introductory chapter, Kramnick and Moore turn to the framing of the original document. While the Articles of Confederation credited “the Great Governnor of the World,” and most contemporary state constitutions restricted suffrage, office holding, or both in accordance with religious beliefs, the proposed national Constitution did neither (p.28). Indeed, the “no religious test” clause was introduced at the Constitutional Convention and adopted by the framers with little discussion. As Kramnick and Moore underscore, however, the clause became “a veritable firestorm” during the ratification debates in the various states (p.32). For many opponents of the proposed Constitution, the lack of a religious test for office symbolized the document’s overarching “basic flaw—its general godless quality, its seeming indifference to religion” (p.33). Yet, a diverse group of Americans, including clerics as well as framers, resisted the arguments to add a provision explicitly declaring that the United States would be a Christian nation. The framing generation settled instead upon a “godless Constitution.”
Even so, Kramnick and Moore recognize that the framers and other supporters of the proposed Constitution were, for the most part, not irreligious. “The political convictions of the men who struggled to ratify a godless Constitution were not products of personal godlessness. Far from it. Almost everyone who participated in the debates about the Constitution shared a concern about the health of religion” (p.44). They believed that religion provided a necessary foundation for the nurturing of a virtuous citizenry. Then why, ask the authors, did the framing generation “refuse to assign government . . . any responsibility for promoting religion?” (pp.44-45). The [*1011] next three chapters attempt to answer that question. The first of these chapters focuses on Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams, as is well known, advocated for an unprecedented degree of separation between church and state because of his strong religious convictions—a degree of separation that the Massachusetts leaders could not accept. Insisting on a pristine form of Puritanism, Williams argued that to claim Massachusetts or any other political community “was a Christian polity, a civil government party to a divine contract, was arrogant blasphemy” (p.48). The next chapter focuses on the Americans’ grounding in the English ideas on the relation of church and state, including those of John Locke. The final chapter in this part focuses on Thomas Jefferson, who was attacked more often than many other contemporaries as being an atheistic opponent of religion. Yet, as Kramnick and Moore point out, his politics more than his religion led to these attacks; he was not godless at a personal level.
The remaining chapters provide case studies, so to speak, of controversies where the godless Constitution has proven especially controversial. The first focuses on how the Baptist community supported Jefferson in the election of 1800 even as his opponents assailed his irreligiosity. The next chapter discusses, first, a controversy that ran from 1810 to 1830 regarding whether mail should be delivered on Sundays, and second, the efforts starting in the late-nineteenth century to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution. The next chapter, the last in the original book, asks how the framers imagined the American democracy could be sustained without established religion. “A democratic government was not created to produce moral citizens,” Kramnick and Moore explain. “It was the other way around: moral citizens constructed and preserved democracy. The founders left the business of teaching morality to private concerns” (p.151).
In the middle of this penultimate chapter, the authors turn toward their utmost concern: demonstrating the harms wrought by the religious right in contemporary America. This is a book of history with a clear message: the current religious right misreads American history, particularly the constitutional framing, and attempts to corrupt both American politics and religion by using religious ties for blatantly political purposes. Many contemporary religious institutions neglect their legitimate concerns with their constituents’ religiosity and morality, and instead blame liberals and government for immorality. After scapegoating the government, the religious right then aims to capture and use it to fulfill their political agenda. In so doing, the religious right uses religion so that it “has divided and stigmatized people” (p.161). Hence, the new final chapter focuses on the presidential administration of George W. Bush. Its barefaced use of religion has contributed to “a deeply divided nation” (p.178). Indeed, Kramnick and Moore fear that “not since the Civil War have the country and the national government been so polarized”—“divided along religious lines” (pp.178-79). The 2000 and 2004 election campaigns created an impression that “presidents were chosen [*1012] to be defenders of the faith, not defenders of the Constitution” (p.181).
Kramnick and Moore have admirably fulfilled their goal: to write a “polemic” advocating for a sharper separation between religion and politics (p.12). In many ways, this is an excellent, albeit brief, book. During this time of persistent debates about the public display of the Ten Commandments, about intelligent design, creation science, and evolution, and about prayers in public schools, Kramnick and Moore have filled their book with useful historical details regarding the on-running battles over Christianity and politics. And while they unequivocally have aggressively argued for their position, they have not ignored counterarguments or inconsistent evidence. Kramnick and Moore clearly believe that religious institutions can play an important role in American society—by attending to non-governmental religious and moral matters, but not to political issues. Indeed, for a polemic, THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION concludes with a remarkably generous assessment of the potential contributions that religion could make to a “government indifferent to religion” (p.176). Moreover, the authors recognize that there has existed a tension between a godless Constitution and a religious people. “The framers erected a godless federal constitutional structure, which was then undermined as God entered first the U.S. currency in 1863, then the federal mail service in 1912, and finally the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954” (p.143). To a great extent, this undermining of the godless Constitution is the reason that the authors have written their book. Kramnick and Moore believe that the framers intended to create a godless Constitution for a purpose: to preserve American society and government. When religion is explicitly interjected into politics, then government and morality suffer. “[T]he founders of this nation would regard the mixing of religion and politics in the ways now being engineered by the religious right as part of the problem of failing public morality, rather than as an answer” (p.153).
Yet, the book does have weaknesses. Kramnick and Moore suggest that a godless Constitution should translate into a godless “politics,” but in so doing, they overlook much of the history that they so compellingly depict (p.52). They seem to ignore the possibility that, if the framers truly aimed for a godless politics, then they perhaps made a mistake: the Constitution, we might say, has a design defect. While Kramnick and Moore admit that the godless Constitution has been undermined through American history, they characterize these developments as a corruption of the framers’ intentions. But a godless Constitution does not necessarily translate into a godless politics or constitutional order. One reason, it seems, that Americans are forever in the throes of religious-culture wars, revolving supposedly around Christian values, is that American society and culture are so thoroughly religious. A religious people in a democracy will, quite naturally, attempt to impose their values and interests. Indeed, at the end of the book, Kramnick and Moore note that in England, where there is an established church, the people tend to be far less religious yet more politically active than Americans. Does this mean that an established church [*1013] undermines religiosity, while disestablishment engenders religious commitment? Many Americans of the framing generation supported disestablishment exactly for this reason; they thought religious institutions would flourish more with disestablishment than with establishment.
To a degree, Kramnick and Moore do not adequately account for the relation between the original Constitution and the contemporary society. As the authors recognize, “most [of the men who championed the godless Constitution] believed in a God who rewarded good and punished evil in an afterlife. They respected the moral teachings of Christ and hoped that they would prosper among Americans and in the churches that Americans attended” (p.44). Indeed, the framers built a godless Constitution on a “de facto” Protestant society (Howe 1965, at 11). So when the framers adopted and the ratifiers accepted the “no religious test” clause, they did not necessarily intend for non-Protestants to hold office. Many assumed that America was so pervasively Protestant that a religious test was beside the point. During the North Carolina ratification debates, for instance, James Iredell explained: “[I]t is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own” (Feldman 1997, at 162-63). The state Governor added that if “Jews and pagans” were to come to America, they would still be few “in proportion” to Christians, and their children would become Christians anyway (Feldman 1997, at 163). Even today, many religious-cultural battles arise from efforts to maintain remnants of the nation’s early de facto Protestantism despite the current religious diversity. Unsurprisingly, then, in the first decades of nationhood, support for disestablishment at the national level was not intended to encourage non-Protestant religions. Individuals advocated for disestablishment for a variety of reasons. For some, it was a matter of federalism: states could have establishments, as some did; the last ended in 1833 (p.118). For other individuals, disestablishment was a matter of practical politics: no single Protestant denomination seemed to wield sufficient power to dominate others. Yet for other individuals, disestablishment followed from the nation’s history: a national church might appear too similar to the Church of England (thus, state and local establishments remained acceptable)—all of which is to say that the story of religion and politics is even more complex than Kramnick and Moore acknowledge. Regardless, they offer a textured and worthy contribution in this contentious area.
Feldman, Stephen M. 1997. PLEASE DON’T WISH ME A MERRY CHRISTMAS: A CRITICAL HISTORY OF THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. New York: New York University Press.
Howe, Mark DeWolfe. 1965. THE GARDEN AND THE WILDERNESS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
© Copyright 2005 by the author, Stephen M. Feldman.