Limited Government under the Constitution in Relation to Religious Considerations Which the Declaration of Independence Makes Express
- Published: 08 January 2012
The Constitution was designed to translate into enduring, governmental reality the ideals, goals and principles of the Declaration of Independence. This is made clear by the inspiring words of the Constitution's Preamble. It provides the connection between these two documents--the chief link being the word "Liberty" in both--with regard especially to the expressly stated religious considerations underlying the traditional American philosophy as defined in the Declaration, notably the concept of God-given, unalienable rights.
Belief in God as the Creator of Man and the giver of his unalienable rights--unalienable because God-given--is the basis of this philosophy; which is an indivisible whole and must be accepted, or rejected, as such. The Constitution's primary role, or function, was intended to be the safeguarding of these rights of every Individual--partly through so limiting the power of the Federal government that it could never interfere with the religious life and practices of the people of the separate States (the people in each State being in complete control of pertinent policy for themselves), always involving implicitly recognition of belief in God as the only basis of the unalienable character of these rights.
The traditional American philosophy's first and fundamental principle is that "The Spiritual Is Supreme," that Man is of Divine origin and his spiritual, or religious, nature is of supreme value and importance compared with things material. This principle was the basis of the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that ". . . all men are created . . . endowed by their Creator . . ." This philosophy teaches that belief in God is the fundamental link which unites the adherents of all religions in a spiritual brotherhood under the common fatherhood of God; and it allows for no differentiation between them as to this unifying conviction.
This applies not only to those who adhere to some one of the organized religions but also to The Individual holding a strictly personal, but genuinely religious, belief--however unorthodox or strange it may seem to others. Belief in God is the common denominator here; but no element of required, religious conformity is involved.
America was colonized originally by adherents of the Christian religion, in the main, and the vast majority of them were Protestants of various denominations. The Founding Fathers nevertheless adhered faithfully to the all-embracing character of the approach of the American philosophy to religion, as indicated by the affirmative and express statement in the Declaration, quoted above. This approach was also indicated, negatively, in the Constitution by way of its denying to the Federal government any power pertaining to religion--no such power was included among the few powers which were delegated to this government by the people. This denial of such power was confirmed by the later addition of the First Amendment, which expressly prohibits the Federal government from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." (Here "an establishment of religion" was intended to mean only an official church organization--one controlled, supported and preferred by the government--such as the Church of England organization which then existed in some of the States.) America is, in fact, a haven for all religions and their adherents; her traditional philosophy in this regard is actually practiced.
This aspect of the American philosophy was emphasized strikingly when discussion was in progress in the legislature of Virginia regarding the Bill to establish religious freedom--finally adopted in 1786. As Jefferson observed in his "Autobiography," it was proposed during the long-continued discussion of the Bill that the reference to "the holy author of our religion" (meaning God) be changed so as to refer to Jesus Christ; but the proposal was rejected by vote of "a great majority," as Jefferson (the author of the first draft) stated:
". . . in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." ("Mahometans" means Moslems, also called "Musselmen." Here "Infidel" means any religious believer although a non-Christian.)
The foregoing comment about America's being a haven for all religions is sound even though in some early colonial communities of a strongly religious character, such as the initial ones in Massachusetts, there was extreme intolerance on the part of the governing group which impelled some dissenters, such as Roger Williams, to leave and found settlements elsewhere. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, however, insofar as government was concerned, religious toleration was widespread in America; although it was some decades before every "establishment of religion" (to use the term of the First Amendment), as defined above, had been abolished by all of the States which had one in 1791 when the First Amendment was adopted.
It is true that the traditional American philosophy is basically religious and that America and Americans in general are a religious country and people. It is equally true that the American people are predominantly Christian in their beliefs. It is, however, unsound to characterize the Constitution of the United States government as being either religious, or Christian. The Constitution is a charter adopted by the people for defining the framework of the federated system of government composed of the central Republic and the State Republics. No such charter, in and of itself, can properly be classified as being religious; just as a government, in and of itself, cannot be so classified. This truth was the basis of the statement in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship entered into by President John Adams, a devoutly religious man and a steadfast Christian, in 1797, between the United States and Tripoli of Barbary, that:
"As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,--as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity of Musselmen . . ." [Moslems]
The non-religious character of government becomes more obvious when it is considered that, under the American philosophy, the sovereign people create their governments as their tools; and no tool can be called religious. To continue with this metaphor, the government, as a tool, is created by the people according to the "blueprint" (the Constitution) which they design in order to help define the characteristics and operating limits of this tool; and no "blueprint" can be classified as religious. As a further illustration, consider the architect's "blueprints" (drawings) for a church building; the edifice will be for religious purposes but the "blueprints" cannot properly be labelled religious in nature, in and of themselves.
This would be true even if it were possible for certain purposes to classify as "religious" a government which is completely dominated by, and an official reflection of, the hierarchy of some church or denomination. Nothing could be more antithetical to the American philosophy than to consider the United States government in any such category. As President Jefferson observed in his Second Inaugural Address (1805):
"In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies."
By "state" authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies, Jefferson referred to those States in which the previously-mentioned, official, church organizations, or establishments--"establishments of religion"--still existed; some of which continued to exist thereafter for a number of years, in Massachusetts until 1834.
No Constitution or government, Federal or State, in America can soundly be called "religious"; and it is equally unsound, of course, to classify any of them as being Christian. This applies also to the Declaration of Independence because it is a political statement; which is true despite the fact that it expresses, in part, the fundamentally religious nature of the American-philosophy. To confuse the religious with the political in this connection impedes clear thinking and sound comprehension of the real values in both of these fields.
The infinite greatness of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as political documents, and their supreme and timeless value to all Americans--and as guidelights to all peoples--do not depend on mistaken adulation due to confused thinking on the basis of the erroneous assumption that they are religious in nature.
The foregoing conclusions do not, of course, conflict with the idea held by many people that the men who framed the Constitution were religiously inspired in performing this great task. This view is the basis, for example, of one of the tenets of two religious sects--the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientists) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons)--whose members are admonished, if not obligated, by the teachings of their respective founders, as a matter of religious duty, to be loyal to the Constitution. There is striking and express support for the belief in such religious inspiration on the part of The Framers in a statement by Benjamin Franklin--not ardently affiliated with any organized religion, with any "establishment of religion," but ever a firm believer in God; though he is erroneously assumed by some to have been a skeptic, a non-believer in God, because of his fame as a scientific-minded person. This statement was published by him during the period of ratification of the Constitution, in The Federal Gazette & the Philadelphia Evening Post of April 8, 1788, in part as follows:
"To conclude, I beg I may not be understood to infer, that our general convention was divinely inspired when it formed the new federal constitution, merely because that constitution has been unreasonably and vehemently opposed; yet I must own, I have so much faith in the general government of the world by PROVIDENCE, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance to the welfare of millions now existing, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior spirits live and move and have their being." (Text per newspaper original.)
In the preceding year, during the debates in the Framing Convention, Franklin had recommended the invocation of Divine guidance of the deliberations of that body, partly in these words:
"The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks . . . is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding . . . how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?"
(The Franklin quotations on page 5, ante, are of particular interest here.) That Divine Providence--Man's Creator, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence--was influential in guiding The Framers in their work in the 1787 Convention is a belief shared by others, too. Note, for example, the assertion by Charles Pinckney, one of this group, in 1788 that he was skeptical at the outset as to the prospect of success of the undertaking due to the conflicting interests involved, and was amazed at the final result, believing that:
"Nothing less than that superintending hand of Providence, that so miraculously carried us through the war (in my humble opinion), could have brought it [the Constitution] about so complete, upon the whole."
Hamilton expressed a similar view soon after the Framing Convention adjourned, in a published essay commenting on the proposed Constitution's system of government:
"For my own part, I sincerely esteem it a system, which, without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests." (Emphasis Hamilton's.)
Madison agreed, as he made expressly clear in The Federalist (no. 37). One more illustration is the resolution adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives on September 25, 1789 recommending that the President proclaim a day of Thanksgiving to God and prayer by the people of the entire nation:
"acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness."
It is sometimes mistakenly asserted that the words of the original Constitution contain no recognition of the existence of God. Besides a formal reference in the closing (execution) clause: "the year of our Lord 1787," Article VI requires an oath, or affirmation, of office by all officials, Federal and State, to support the Constitution. This is in the same sentence prohibiting any religious test for Federal office; which makes it clear that such an oath of office was not considered by The Framers and Adopters of the Constitution to be such a prohibited test. As understood by them, as well as their fellow leaders and the people in general, such an oath (or affirmation, in the alternative, by those whose religious convictions bar their "swearing") is fundamentally religious--in effect and impliedly acknowledging belief in, and invoking punishment by, a Supreme Being (as the oath-taker conceives such a Being, without any degree of enforced, religious conformity) for any failure to tell the truth or other falsification, as the case may be. The reference by The Framers in this document in this indirect way to religion, evidencing recognition of God, was emphasized by John Quincy Adams in his previously quoted "Jubilee" address on April 30, 1839:
"The constitution had provided that all the public functionaries of the Union, not only of the general but of all the state governments, should be under oath or affirmation for its support. The homage of religious faith was thus superadded to all the obligations of temporal law, to give it strength; and this confirmation of an appeal to the responsibilities of a future omnipotent judge, was in exact conformity with the whole tenor of the Declaration of Independence--guarded against abusive extension by a further provision . . ." [against a religious test for Federal office].
To repeat, the Constitution cannot soundly be classified as a religious document; but in the foregoing respects, for example, it is intimately bound up with recognition of the existence of God and with an assumption of the profound connection of this recognition with sound self-government. Furthermore, as the pertinent quotations presented in the first portion of this study-guide indicate, it was the firm conviction of The Founders that religion is the basis of morality and that firm religious conviction and faith are, therefore, essential to sound morality among a people; just as sound morality was considered by them to be essential to sound character of Individuals and of the people of a country, as the only firm basis upon which successful self-government could be created and endure.
It is also of special interest to note in this connection that the philosophy of the American people, through the generations preceding the period of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution as well as during this period, was characterized in the main by a dominant element of the religious. This philosophy, underlying these two instruments as discussed previously, was as we have seen actively and substantially influenced by religious leaders--chief of all clergymen of New England in the long course of their own gradually developing struggle toward "Liberty and Independence" within the realm of religion as well as with regard to their role as citizens in the field of government: that is, independence of country from foreign control accompanied by Individual Liberty, especially in the realm of conscience and all things religious--freedom of conscience and freedom of The Individual to reason and to decide religious questions himself without interference by any superintending, earthly Authority. These developments within the realm of religious thinking strongly influenced and fostered the kindred developments, in the governmental realm, which culminated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Various sound volumes devoted to this subject--especially the role of the New England clergy in the development of the philosophy leading up to 1776, make inspiring and enlightening reading for any student of the fundamentals of the traditional American philosophy. They participated in governmental activities, moreover--notably in Town-meetings--during consideration of fundamental matters; and, for instance, thirteen clergymen were members of the Constitutional Convention of 1779-1780 in Massachusetts which framed this State's first Constitution.
There is an important consideration which needs to be kept in mind by every generation, including especially the Clergy and all others particularly interested in preserving religious liberty--freedom of conscience--in America, with fullest protection under the Constitution. This is that freedom of conscience and religion is only one aspect of the indivisible whole of Individual Liberty and must stand or fall with the other parts; it cannot be treated separately and preserved, as observed in 1776 by the Reverend John Witherspoon--president of Princeton College and a signer of the Declaration of Independence:
"There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage."
Samuel Adams asserted the same conclusion as to civil and religious liberty in 1774: "they rise and fall together." Hamilton also observed in the same year in this regard that: "if the foundation of the one be sapped, the other will fall of course." In the 1785 document drafted by Madison: "A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments"--opposing a tax in Virginia to support "teachers of the Christian religion," it was stated in conclusion:
"Because, finally, 'the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience' is held by the same tenure with all our other rights."
An impressive expression of a similar view was contained in a letter written by the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Connecticut, in their Annual Meeting on June 22, 1774, to the clergy of beseiged Boston, stating:
"We consider you as suffering in the common cause of America--in the cause of civil liberty; which, if taken away, we fear would involve the ruin of religious liberty also . . ."
In other words, religious liberty and all other liberties stand, or fall, together; they can be secure only to the extent that their governmental foundation is preserved in its full integrity, only to the extent that the Constitution is respected in its original, true and only meaning--as intended by those who framed and adopted the initial instrument and each amendment--subject only to the people's exclusive power to change it, which can be done solely by amendment.
The final topic, in this presentation of background material, concerns the economic aspect of Individual Liberty and will now be considered in some detail.