With regard to the principles of all sound religion which we discussed in the last principle of liberty, the Founders were in harmony with the thinking of John Locke as expressed in his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In it Locke pointed out that it defies the most elementary aspects of reason and experience to presuppose that everything in existence developed as a result of an accident or chance of nature. The mind, for example, will not accept the proposition that the forces of nature, churning about among themselves, would ever produce a watch, or even a lead pencil, let alone the marvelous intricacies of the human eye, the ear, or even the simplest of the organisms found in nature. All these are the product of intelligent design and high-precision engineering. Locke felt that a person who calls himself an “atheist” is merely confessing that he has never dealt with the issue of the Creator’s existence. Therefore, to Locke an atheist would be to that extent “irrational,” and out of touch with reality; in fact, out of touch with the most important and fundamental reality.
Those of us who teach the Founders’ formula for freedom in America are sometimes asked the question: “If, as you claim, the Founders really believed in God, why doesn’t the Constitution spell out that belief clearly or at least mention God?” The answer to that question would surprise some Americans.
Indeed it was the very fact that the Founders were so religious and held religious freedom to be, next to life itself, the most precious of all of man’s unalienable rights that they wanted to keep the ever-tempting power of the federal government far away from this most valuable right. They had both experience and knowledge from studies of what happens to a people in a nation when its government meddles in the subject of religion and they wanted no part of it. To them religion was very personal and any regulation of it had to be very close to the people so that any abuse could be easily and efficiently dealt with and corrected in order to ensure the maximum freedom to believe according to the dictates of one’s conscience.
They Excluded the Federal Government out of Belief not Unbelief
With regard to the subject of religion in the powers of Congress there is not one iota of delegated authority mentioned. To emphasize the Founders position on this they soon adopted the First Amendment prohibition on Congress with respect to anything dealing with religion. Once again, it was not out of unbelief in God that this prohibition took place but, quite to the contrary, out of their overwhelming desire to protect their precious freedom to believe in God as they chose. Justice Joseph Story explained it this way:
“In some of the states, Episcopalians constituted the predominant sect; in others, Presbyterians; in others, Congregationalists; in others, Quakers; and in others again, there was a close numerical rivalry among contending sects. It was impossible that there should not arise perpetual strife and perpetual jealousy on the subject of ecclesiastical ascendancy, if the national government were left free to create a religious establishment. The only security was in extirpating the power. But this alone would have been an imperfect security, if it had not been followed up by a declaration of the right of the free exercise of religion, and a prohibition (as we have seen) of all religious tests. Thus, the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice, and the state constitutions.” (Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 3rd ed,, 2 vols. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1858, 2:666-667, art. 1879)
In the Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson also made it clear that not only Congress but also the federal judicial system was likewise prohibited from intermeddling with religious matters within the states. He wrote:
“Special provision has been made by one of the amendments to the Constitution, which expressly declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …’, thereby guarding in the same sentence, and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others; and that libels, falsehood, and defamation, equally with heresy and false religions, are withheld from the cognizance of federal tribunals.” (Mortimer J. Adler et al., eds., The Annals of America, 18 vols., Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1968, 4:63)
The Founders Actively Participated in Local and State Government
But the Founders did not just leave it to the states to protect the freedom of religion, they took an active part in local governments. Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and of those participating in the Ratification Conventions in the states, nearly all had been strong participants in local and state government: Governors, state legislators, court magistrates, etc. They knew the value of keeping government close to the people, and the more sensitive and delicate a given unalienable right was, the closer to the people it needed to be for protection from abuse. So it was natural to carefully enumerate the few powers given to the national government and to provide powerful checks on the use of them. Hence, as James Madison explained:
“The powers delegated… to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.”
Because the Founders believed that state and local government can more precisely reflect the feelings and heart-felt beliefs of the people in those states, the drafters of the state constitutions felt uninhibited to express themselves. It is from these documents that we can get a more accurate idea of the Founders dependence on, and accountability to, the Creator.
Universal Recognition of Almighty God in State Constitutions
Nearly all of the fifty states recognize God in the Preambles or the Declaration of Rights of their state constitutions in one or more of the following phrases:
- “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God”
- “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”
- “grateful to God and to those who founded our nation and pioneered this great land”
- “grateful to Almighty God for our liberties”
- “grateful to Almighty God for the privilege of choosing our own form of government; for our civil and religious liberty”
- “with profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe”“acknowledging with gratitude, the good providence of God, in having permitted them to enjoy a free government”
- “Through Divine goodness, all men have by nature the rights of worshiping and serving their Creator according to the dictates of their consciences”
- “being grateful to Almighty God for our constitutional liberty”
- “relying upon the protection and guidance of Almighty God”
- “grateful for Divine Guidance”
- “grateful to Almighty God for the civil, political and religious liberty which He has permitted us to enjoy and seeking His blessing upon our endeavors”
- “grateful to ALMIGHTY GOD for the free exercise of the right to choose our own form of government”
- “grateful to the Supreme Being for the blessings hitherto enjoyed, and feeling our dependence on Him for a continuation of those blessings”
- “acknowledging with grateful hearts the goodness of the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe in affording us an opportunity, so favorable to the design; and, imploring God’s aid and direction in its accomplishment”
- “acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design”
- “grateful to Almighty God, and invoking His blessing on our work”
- “with profound reverence for the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and grateful for His goodness”
- “grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains”
- “grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and transmit the same unimpaired to succeeding generations”
- “grateful to Almighty God, the Sovereign Ruler of Nations, for the preservation of the American Union and the existence of our civil, political and religious liberties, and acknowledging our dependence upon Him for the continuance of those blessings to us and our posterity”
- “grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance”
- “grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and to transmit the same, unimpaired, to succeeding generations”
- “Since through Divine Providence we enjoy the blessings of civil, political and religious liberty….”
Oath Taking – A Recognition of Man’s Duty to God
Nearly every state requires public officials to take an oath upon entering their term of service. To the Founders, oath taking was very special. They knew one does not take an oath to people. The oath is taken to God, hence, in nearly every state constitution the words “so help me God” are required at the end of the oath.
Furthermore, some state constitutions deny elective office to anyone who does not believe in God, recognizing the situation that if a person who doesn’t belief in the existence of God is required to take an oath to God, it would be meaningless and of no binding effect upon the man’s conscience. Some states constitutions also forbid a non-believer from giving testimony in court, realizing that his oath to God “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” would have no binding effect. In other words his testimony could not be relied upon for the truth. The following words are examples found in some state constitutions. Note that, to the Founders, these words were not in conflict with the prohibition of a religious test found in Article VI of the U. S. Constitution which was meant only to prohibit a sectarian or denominational test.
It is also interesting to note that many states were adopting constitutions at a time when modern anti-Creator theories were being perpetrated from the likes of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. It seems the authors of state constitutions wanted it clearly known that they, with America’s Founders, knew the source of their freedoms and liberties and that all public officials must have a belief in a Supreme Being to whom they feel accountable. Hear their words in their state constitutions:
- “No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.”
- “The manner of administering an oath or affirmation shall be such as is most consistent with the conscience of the deponent, and shall be esteemed by the General Assembly the most solemn appeal to God.”
- “That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God”
- “The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
- “No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”
“In God We Trust”
Even though the phrase “In God We Trust” was later officially adopted by Congress as the nation’s motto, original histories of the United States are filled with accounts affirming the Founders’ belief that all things were created by God and that upon Him are all mankind equally dependent and to Him they are equally responsible.
Earl Taylor, Jr.