Do we need God to understand the Constitution?

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in September 2012

800 words / 4 min.
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While it’s the foundation of our political system, many Americans really don’t understand the Constitution. While many of those who try to help do contribute useful understandings, sometimes their approaches neglect the historical and textual complexity of the document – and are potentially misleading.

Please note that this post is from 2012. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

September is the 225th anniversary of the United States Constitution. While it’s the foundation of our political system, many Americans really don’t understand it accurately. While many of those who try to help do contribute useful understandings, sometimes their approaches neglect the historical and textual complexity of the document — and are potentially misleading.

For example, while acknowledging and lamenting this lack of general understanding of this foundational document, Peter Roff, in Americans Must Improve Their Understanding of the Constitution, chooses to emphasize “God” as if it were an unproblematic influence on the Constitution. He writes:

Prior to the Constitution, and the revolution that inspired it, the widely held belief was that power came from God and was given to kings, who in turn would use that power to rule over the people in His name.

The Constitution changed all that. It was a new covenant, established on the principle that power flowed from God to the people who then loaned it to the state in order to better administrate the affairs of man and to produce what has become known as “ordered liberty.”

While there is certainly something true in what Roff says, his “neat and tidy” summary of constitutional context collapses complexity into facile description. He does acknowledge that it was “imperfect,” at least: “The Founding Fathers themselves recognized this, including within it several mechanisms to amend it as needed.”

But the “Founding Fathers” were hardly unified in their views (vitriolic arguments between Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists are just one example). Not all of them believed in the same ”covenant” (or, as its more usually stated, “contract”) theory of government, nor did they all believe that power flowed from God to people to the state.

The Constitution itself contains no mention of covenants nor of God — though the “People” are most definitely present, right from the preamble onwards:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Gods and covenants are notably absent in the Constitution. Perhaps Roff is thinking of the Declaration of Independence?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

(Note that it also references “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” both of which may include the Christian God, but which also reference Thomas Jefferson’s Deism).

Roff’s description of the context of the Constitution tells only part of the back-story, one that’s been used by many to make the Constitution into a Christian document, not a secular one. Roff’s description perpetuates this incomplete and misleading trend.

Similarly, Roff’s focus on the Constitution as “covenant” — a term which also has religious implications — does reference a common view of the day that governments were “social contracts“: government gains authority because people consent to that authority. The details of this were (and are debated): as one example, do we simply imply our consent by living here? What is the role of force in consent? But perhaps most importantly, here again Roff inserts God in the equation in a way that many, perhaps especially Thomas Jefferson, were at pains to remove. As the Preamble shows, God is not necessary to “form a more perfect Union.”

None of this is to say that the Founders were atheists, or that belief in God did not play a role in the writing of the Constitution. It is only to suggest that Roff’s expression of the founding of the nation obscures real complexity. His formulation implies that God is necessary to the Constitution, and that other, secular understandings are wrong. That said, no historian could hope to understand the writing of the Constitution without a background in the religious views (plural) of the time. But implying that that a faith-based perspective on the Constitution is the only correct one is equally misleading, especially to understand the Constitution in today’s context.

Believer or not, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or other, everyone can understand that the legal rights in the Constitution are not absolute, and that the document outlines balances between various levels and branches of government that are complex and evolving. Religion is not necessary to understand the text, but is required for a proper history. (And these aren’t the same thing.)