Stand up and waive if you have read the US Constitution. Make sure you read that section about “God.” If you look, “God” is not mentioned in the Constitution. And there is a good reason for that omission.
President James Madison and the other Founding Fathers would be happy to know the Constitution they signed 233 years ago today is still in place, but they might also be dismayed over the lack of knowledge Americans have of the “people’s document.” Montpelier’s Center for the Constitution released results of a national survey conducted this summer to gauge knowledge of constitutional principles. Although 79 percent of those surveyed said they understood at least some of the Constitution, only 28 percent of the 988 people surveyed said they have actually read the entire document.
Because so many people have not read the Constitution, they may be surprised to learn the word “God” is not used in the US Constitution. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution contains no reference to God. At first, this may seem odd. But is not odd if one considers the different purposes of the two documents.
The Declaration was about explaining to the world why America was rebelling. The Declaration calls upon a non-sectarian concept of divinity to support rights set forth as unalienable, with liberty as inviolable. The phrase “laws of nature and of nature’s god” is associated with eighteenth century deism, a “rather vague Enlightenment-era belief . . . in a Creator whose divine handiwork was evident in the wonders of nature” but not “a personal God who interceded directly in the daily affairs of mankind. WALTER ISAACSON, AMERICAN SKETCHES: GREAT LEADERS, CREATIVE THINKERS, AND HEROES OF A HURRICANE 29 (2009); see also STEVEN WALDMAN, FOUNDING FAITH: PROVIDENCE, POLITICS, AND THE BIRTH OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN AMERICA 88–89 (2008) (“This was the language of the Enlightenment theology that grew up in the eighteenth century as a result not only of philosophical innovations—John Locke, David Hume, and others—but also, more important, of scientific innovations.”). The term “nature’s god” is consistent with Jefferson’s deistic beliefs. William D. Gould, The Religious Opinions of Thomas Jefferson, 20 MISS. VALLEY HIST. REV. 191, 199 (1933) (“Jefferson was not a deist. . . . [H]e was a decided Unitarian.”), with 3 DUMAS MALONE, JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME: JEFFERSON AND THE ORDEAL OF LIBERTY 481 (1962) (“Actually, he was a deist, not an atheist.”).
The Constitution outlines a republican government in a free country. The Preamble to the Constitution declares that its purposes are “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.” These are wholly secular objects. A religious reference is therefore extraneous in a document drafted to further those goals.
The absence of references to “God” in the Constitution is consistent with the strict religious neutrality of the entire document. There is no state religion and Article VI of the Constitution provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
As creatures of the Enlightenment, the writers of the Constitution were keenly aware of the threat to the principle of universal freedom of religion. Indeed, shortly before the Constitution was proposed and ratified, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison squared off against Patrick Henry and his bill for “Establishing A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” for Virginia in the mid-1780s. Jefferson and Madison won the day, and the Virginia legislature did not enact Henry’s bill.
Thus, when Madison drafted the Constitution he left out the term “God” since he wanted no part of religious intolerance and bloodshed, and established the ﬁrst government in history to separate church and state.