Huckabee and the U.S. Constitution

Mike Huckabee thinks the U. S. Constitution is a problem. What problem is that? Well, it doesn’t adhere to God’s standards. Sheesh, it doesn’t even mention God. Nor Christianity. What were the founders thinking?

So Huckabee wants to amend the Constitution to make it properly subservient to God and his divine standards. He doesn’t exactly say what standards he has in mind, at least it’s not reported here

I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution,” Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. “But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that’s what we need to do—to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.

Perhaps he’d like us to imitate the current Iraq Constitution, with it’s long religious preamble and enshrinement of Sharia, in contrast to what Americans currently have. . .

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.

And

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Hmmm. That’s so secular. Didn’t the founders know about the importance of basing our government on God’s standards? Did they forget we are supposed to be a Christian nation? Well, there’s always the amendments to pull God out of the hat, right?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That pretty much sums up what the Constitution has to say about God and religion. Which is why from the beginning scholars and historians—not to mention the founders themselves—have maintained that the Constitution enshrines the principle of separation of church and state. After the Constitutional Convention finished its work, the Constitution was sent to the state legislatures for ratification. There was vigorous debate across the country, and it wasn’t missed by some Christians that the Constitution never mentioned God. When one woman confronted Alexander Hamilton about why God had been left out, Hamilton replied “Madam, we forgot!”

He was being facetious. The omission was intentional. It was thoroughly vetted, it was thoroughly debated; then the respective state legislatures endorsed the wording of the Constitution and it became the supreme law of the land.

When we look at the debates of which we have record, we see that as far as religion was concerned the biggest worry from opponents was that the Constitution didn’t specifically prevent an establishment of religion (a concern that would find its answer in the 1st amendment).

True enough, some had other worries. With “no religious test” for office allowed, a few opponents objected that a Jew, an atheist, a Mahometan (Muslim), a Catholic—god forbid, even the Pope—might be elected President. (Yes, this worry was actually expressed by opponents in the North Carolina legislature). Proponents made short work of such objections. An effort in Virginia to require belief in God was also turned down.

Equally unsuccessful was the Virginia initiative in April and May 1788 to change the wording of Article 6 itself. “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United Stares” became “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil.” This change was rejected. The Godless Constitution: the Case Against Religious Correctness by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 37

And yes, a few Christians of the time echoed the complaint so often heard from evangelicals today: our nation needs to be based on God’s authority, not man’s, and the Constitution needs to say so explicitly. One example occurred in Connecticut in February of 1788, and the vigorous defense of the Constitution’s secular nature which followed makes plain, I believe, the Enlightenment temper of the times.

William Williams (whose prior opposition to the “no religious test” clause had apparently drawn strong reply), wrote a letter published Feb 11 in the Hartford American Mercury defending his objection (although he admitted “I would not wish to make it a capital objection”) to the clause. All he had intended to argue, he explained, was that the only religious test should be belief in God. Williams wrote,

When the clause in the 6th Article, which provides that “no religious test should ever be required as a qualification to any office Or trust, etc.” came under consideration, I observed I should have chose that sentence, and anything relating to a religious test, had been totally omitted rather than stand as it did; but still more wished something of the kind should have been inserted, but with a reverse sense so far as to require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, His perfections, and His providence, and to have been prefixed to, and stand as, the first introductory words of the Constitution in the following or similar terms, viz.: We the people of the United Slates, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the world, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: that He will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence on His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union, etc., as it is expressed in the present introduction, do ordain, etc. And instead of none, that no other religious test should ever he required, etc. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. III. Ratification of the Constitution by the States Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Edited by Merrill Jensen, Madison State Historical Society of Wis, 1978, pp 588-590

Huckabee, I imagine, and many of our current evangelicals, would heartily endorse Williams’ call to amend the preamble so that it acknowledges God in such fashion. So too, I suppose, would the Mullahs in Iraq. Nevertheless, this suggestion went nowhere in 1788. To understand why, I’d like to quote from a hearty reply Williams got from someone named Elihu*.

Should any body of men, whose characters were unknown to me, form a plan of government, and prologue it with a long pharisaical harangue about God and religion, I should suspect a design to cheat and circumvent us, and their cant, and semblance of superior sanctity would be the ground of my suspicion. If they have a plan founded on good sense, wisdom, and experience, what occasion have they to make use of God, His providence, or religion, like old cunning monks to gain our assent to what is in itself rational and just?

Elihu continued

“There must be (tis objected) some proof, some evidence that we the people acknowledge the being of a God.” Is this a thing that wants proof? Is this a thing that wants constitutional establishment in the United States? It is almost the only thing that all universally are agreed in; everybody believes there is a God; not a man of common sense in the United States denies or disbelieves it.

This was probably true. In the 1780s, atheism in the former colonies was extremely rare if not bordering on non-existent. At any rate, argued Elihu, no Constitutional test for belief in God was required.

The fool hath said in his heart there is no God, but was there ever a wise man said such a thing? No, not in any age or in any country. Besides, if it was not so, if there were unbelievers, as it is a matter of faith, it might as well be admitted; for we are not to bind the consciences of men by laws or constitutions.

The mind is free; it may be convinced by reasoning, but cannot be compelled by laws or constitutions, no, nor by fire, faggot, or the halter.

We can forgive Elihu for not anticipating that the scientific study of geology, biology and genetics—and, yes, the theory of evolution—would eventually make atheism respectable among the best-educated Americans of the 20th and 21st centuries. As it turns out, it is wise men and women, not fools, who today are most likely to disbelieve.

Elihu finished his reply with words that could be as easily directed at the Huckabees and theocrats of our day as at the opponents of the Constitution 220 years ago.

The time has been when nations could be kept in awe with Stories of gods sitting with legislators and dictating laws; with this lure, cunning politicians have established their own power on the credulity of the people; shackling their uninformed minds with incredible tales. But the light of philosophy has arisen in these latter days, miracles have ceased, oracles are silenced, monkish darkness is dissipated, and even witches at last hide their heads. Mankind are no longer to be deluded with fable. Making the glory of God subservient to the temporal interest of men is a worn out trick, and a pretense to superior sanctity and special grace will not much longer promote weakness over the head of wisdom.

A low mind may imagine that God, like a foolish old man, will think himself slighted and dishonored if he is not complimented with a seat or a prologue of recognition in the Constitution, but those great philosophers who formed the Constitution had a higher idea of the perfection of that INFINITE MIND which governs all worlds than to suppose they could add to his honor or glory, or that He would be pleased with such low familiarity or vulgar flattery.

Elihu ends on a note of elegance comparable with what might have come from the pen of a Madison or Paine or Jefferson.

The most shining part, the most brilliant circumstance in honor of the framers of the Constitution is their avoiding all appearance of craft, declining to dazzle even the superstitious by a hint about grace or ghostly knowledge. They come to us in the plain language of common sense and propose to our understanding a system of government as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it, nor even a God appears in a dream to propose any part of it. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. III. Ratification of the Constitution by the States Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Edited by Merrill Jensen, Madison State Historical Society of Wis, 1978, pp 590-592

* Postscript: It seems plausible to me that “Elihu” was in fact Elihu Palmer (1764-1806) who in 1787 graduated from Dartmouth, where he had trained to become a Presbyterian minister.  Palmer, who lost his eyesight after a bout with yellow fever in 1793, founded the Deistical Society of New York, started two newspapers (The Temple of Reason in 1800, and Prospect, or View of the Moral World in 1803), and wrote a book explaining his views, Principles of Nature; or a Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species. Despite being blind, he was apparently well-known (although controversial) in Philadelphia and New York as a public speaker and writer.

Another possibility, I think, is that Elihu was a pseudonym used by none other than Joel Barlow, the poet and diplomat who would later draft the Treaty of Tripoli (with its famous phrase, “As the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion…”). Barlow, together with Elisha Babcock, started the American Mercury (where the above exchange occurred) in 1784. Like Palmer, Barlow became a Deist. While Thomas Paine was in prison during the Reign of Terror, Barlow helped him publish the first part of Age of Reason.

Elihu’s full essay can be read here.

This entry was posted in State & Church. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Huckabee and the U.S. Constitution

  1. Matthew says:

    Great post, and on the whole I agree with it. I think you may be misunderstanding Huckabee, however. Your post argues against recognizing God in the Constitution or requiring a religious test. I do not think Huckabee would oppose you on those points. His comments had to do with an amendment defining marriage.

    Even with a fundamentalist background, I don’t think that the Constitution (which primarily concerns inter-state and international relations) should say anything about marriage. But those who do advocate a marriage amendment aren’t motivated by a desire to arbitrarily impose fundamentalism upon people. They are just reasoning logically from their belief in God.

    The “standards” Huckabee was talking about are the “blueprint” that some of your posts have challenged. If you believe in them, and if you believe that the Bible is a clear guide to them, then you naturally see homosexuality as something unnatural, against the grain of humanness.

    Every view of government is motivated by some primary value. To a libertarian, that value is free will, which is the essence of human nature; and thus just government ought to protect the individual. To the progressive, that value is equality, and so the state ought to prevent anyone from domineering over others, even if that means circumventing their individual free will. And to a fundamentalist like Huckabee, that value is God’s law, not because his religion is better than everyone else’s but because in his eyes, God’s law is a users’ manual for humans and by breaking it we break ourselves. He, like Libertarians or Progressives, sincerely believes that he knows what government’s highest priority should be.

    That does not mean that a fundamentalist believes there is no private sphere. Huckabee, as far as I know, doesn’t think the government should interfere with what people do in their own homes. He just shares with many evangelicals the opinion that the government should not legally sanction an unnatural and destructive behavior by giving it the privileges of marriage.

  2. Matthew says:

    So what I meant to say is that the debate is not about religion, per se; it’s just that certain policy questions involve values, and Huckabee’s values are for the most part derived from his opinions on religion.

  3. Stephen says:

    Matthew writes: If you believe that the Bible is a clear guide, then you naturally see homosexuality as something unnatural, against the grain of humanness…That does not mean that a fundamentalist believes there is no private sphere. Huckabee, as far as I know, doesn’t think the government should interfere with what people do in their own homes. He just shares with many evangelicals the opinion that the government should not legally sanction an unnatural and destructive behavior by giving it the privileges of marriage.

    My reply: A moral society requires the government to intervene in the private sphere; at least I think that is a fundamentalist view which Mike Huckabee would support.

    A society which legalizes sodomy (until Lawrence v. Texas 2003 – 13 states had sodomy laws, 4 prohibiting oral and anal sex between same-sex couples, 9 banning consensual sodomy for everyone – what was the Huckabee position?) and the loosening of societal mores that comes with readily available contraception ( Griswold v. Connecticut, which set the stage for Roe v. Wade) cannot be a moral society as understood or desired by many Americans.

    The Bill of Rights does not explicitly mention “privacy.” The uber-liberal Justice William O. Douglas ruled that the right was found in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution. I am quite certain that many, if not a majority, of the current Supreme Court justices would mockingly dismiss such a legal argument today.

  4. Jo Jo says:

    Many conservatives and libertarians find a “right of association” in the Constitution. This right is derived through as convoluted and tortuous a method as Douglas used to find the right of privacy. In other words, some people are strict constructionists when there’s a manufactured right they don’t approve of (I suspect the objection to the right of privacy is because this right is the legal basis for abortion ). They’re “living constitutionalists” when the interpretation covers something they do approve of.

  5. Matthew says:

    Steven wrote: “A moral society requires the government to intervene in the private sphere; at least I think that is a fundamentalist view which Mike Huckabee would support.”

    My reply: I think the real disagreement concerns where the private sphere ends. The sodomy laws, if I understand them right, were based on the reasoning that society would be damaged if sodomy were widespread. Most liberals still think that we should outlaw behavior that could damage society (e.g. drug abuse); they just don’t think that sexual openness would have that effect. The question between social liberals and conservatives is which private actions would, if widespread, cause moral harm to society. In choices that have little moral consequence (i.e. where to live or travel, what jobs to seek, who to talk to, political views), I think that most Americans agree that private decisions should be respected by the government.

  6. Stephen says:

    Matthew,

    I’m willing to consider the point you are trying to make, but I don’t think your example is valid. I’ll explain my reasoning and I look forward to your response.

    I chose as examples the two landmark cases of private and personal private activities: Supreme Court cases regarding contraceptive use and sexual activity by consenting adults in their own residence.

    Neither of these private activites has any direct public impact – life goes on just the same outside of the home or apartment. It is hard to argue that these activites pose a threat to public safety or other direct interests of governance. I would have an easy time making that case for drug abuse, which is why I don’t think it is a good example. The current interpretation of the Constitution is that private behavior should be unretricted (in law and in principle) unless there is a proximate risk of harm to others. I guess that is the Conservative, Liberal or Libertarian view – I’m just now sure which.

    The argument I think you are making is related to the (very) indirect effects of private behavior on society.

    The secular argument can be made that permitting sexual relations which do not promote large families headed by lifelong monogamous heterosexual legally married partners is not in the best interests of our society. Therefore, since these private behaviors affect the fabric of society, laws can be passed to limit contraception, restrict divorce, etc.

    The religious argument (Huckabee and supporters) is a democracy with a Christian majority can enforce a Biblical injunction precisely because it is the word of God. Because it is the word of God, it by definition promotes a better society (secular benefits are a given). The Constitution either explicitly allows this, or can be interpreted not to prohibit it, or should be amended to conform.

    Huckabee and , Antonin Scalia, and like minded people argue that the indirect effects of even the most private behavior define society, and therefore can and should be subject to societal regulation.

    The basis for such regulation can be religious (the Bible says) or secular (unsanctioned sexual relations undermines lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage with large families of children, this being the best for society) – not that the two are unrelated.

    The alternative view is that the essential principles of governance in the United States is to limit regulation and interference of the individual. I guess that view is Libertarian, Conservative, or Liberal depending on whose ox is being gored.

  7. Stephen says:

    Sorry about the repititious rambling of the 3 paragraphs at the end of that posting. I thought I had deleted them as I rewrote my comments. Oh well.

  8. Matthew says:

    Thanks for the comment – I can see your point. However, you seem to be agreeing with me that Americans and American law define the private sphere as those actions which do not harm society. The fact that you say drugs have a direct effect on society but homosexuality and contraceptives have an indirect effect is just the result of what kind of society you value. As you pointed out, people can make a secular case for regulating sexual conduct (e.g. stable homes are better at raising children, promiscuity leads to more sexual predators and spreads STDs, lowered birthrates affect a nation economically, etc.) or a religious one (God designed marriage a certain way, and rejecting it would have negative effects). Either way, the main argument would not be over the role of government, but over which moral actions affect society and therefore constitute part of the public sphere.

    The religious right may be completely wrong to think that private sexual actions affect the public, but they agree with most Americans that truly private actions are off limits to government interference.

  9. Stephen says:

    Matthew,

    I appreciate this rational discourse.

    “American law defines the private sphere as ‘those actions which do not harm society’.” I am not a legal scholar, but I think the distinction is not one of benefit-neutral-harm. Private acts have those characteristics, but I don’t think that is the premise for definition.

    “The religious right may be completely wrong to think that private sexual actions affect the public, but they agree with most Americans that truly private actions are off limits to government interference.”

    That last phrase is intriguing.

    I know this is hypothetical, but I want to explore the principle outside of personal sexuality. Can the government prohibit cigarette smoking in one’s own home? It’s obviously not a truly private action in your sense of the term. Secularly, we all pay the costs of the harm it does to the health of the individual, not to mention a spouse or children in the home. Furthermore, many interpret the Bible as indicating that smoking a moral sin. I guess you are making the point that while the government isn’t likely to make that law, it’s only a matter of preferences, not something that is (or should be)restricted by Constitutional law.

    The Supreme Court case overturned a law prohibiting the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception”. I think most Americans understand their current liberty to use contraception is a truly private right which is off limits to government interference.

    Is this just a matter of moral relativism, not moral before 1960’s and therefore subject to restriction, but now accepted as moral and a personal right ? Or is there an enduring Constitutional principle that can’t be legislated away depending on the prevailing moods?

  10. Matthew says:

    Thanks for the reply. This discussion has got to the point where I may as well just state my own opinions on government, for the purpose of clarity.

    First, no one lives in a bubble. Every action contributes to what kind of person the actor is, and what kind of person he is affects those around him. This is sometimes hard to envision concerning a whole nation, but we can all see it within smaller organizations. That’s why there’s a team spirit, or a more or less intellectual environment in certain schools, etc.

    Second, some actions affect society more than others. If I smoke a cigarette every day, the worst result will be some secondhand smoke breathed by my family and maybe an early death from lung cancer. If I smoke crack every day, I’m going to have a hard time thinking, holding a normal job, having a good attitude with people, and generally contributing to society.

    Third, how much a certain action affects society determines whether it is in the private or public sphere. Only an extremely absolutist government would claim the right to make anyone do anything. Most peoples and governments distinguish where public actions leave off and private choice begins.

    Fourth, a culture’s common values determine how much an action’s effects matter to society. Nineteenth century Britain regulated divorce and homosexuality, but was pretty permissive with personal opium use. The modern US is quite strict with drug abuse, but very hands-off when it comes to the institution of family. The difference lies in how harmful drugs and homosexuality are perceived to be to society.

    You mentioned two examples. As regards smoking, I’ll just say that all the evangelicals I know (and I grew up with them) don’t think the government should have much say. Most don’t even like the idea of a tax on cigarettes, reasoning that the same principle could be used to tax things that they like to do. As for contraceptives, your words were:

    “Is this just a matter of moral relativism, not moral before 1960’s and therefore subject to restriction, but now accepted as moral and a personal right ? Or is there an enduring Constitutional principle that can’t be legislated away depending on the prevailing moods?”

    Of course, that depends on what you mean by “constitutional” and “principle.” The principle in our actual laws is that there are private and public spheres. Where those spheres end and start has been adjusted according to the values of each generation, not according to some eternal, natural standard. I personally don’t think that the US written Constitution says much about that, but our constitution, in the broader sense of the word, has a lot to do with private versus public rights and responsibilities.

  11. Stephen says:

    Matthew:

    I’m impressed that you took the time to compose such a detailed reply. I am curious if anyone is reading this dialogue besides us, although it doesn’t matter.

    I took your closing line as the essential point: “I personally don’t think that the US written Constitution says much about that (right to individual liberties), but our constitution, in the broader sense of the word, has a lot to do with private versus public rights and responsibilities.”

    The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution had a very limited view of the federal government. Barron v. Baltimore established that the Bill of Rights apply to the federal government’s powers, but do NOT apply to state or local governments. Rights that everyone today assumes are bedrock American principles are actually rather recent. States could and did establish religions, outlaw free speech, legally take property without due process, etc.

    Individual Founding Fathers, notably Jefferson and Madison, believed the principles of the Constitution should apply at ALL levels of government. States rights to restrict individual freedom were not curtailed until after the Civil War. It was not until the twentieth century that the Supreme Court gradually included the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees.

    This explains why the days of Sunday sabbath restrictions (nothing was open on Sundays when I was growing up) were perfectly legal until recent times. It also explains why you now can get the Netflix or Blockbuster DVD of your choice through the U.S. mail, condoms or birth control pills, and have whatever sexual relationships between consenting adults behind closed doors.

  12. Matthew says:

    I completely agree. There is a difference between the written constitution and the law, precedent, and custom that constitute our government. By the way, where did you grow up?

  13. Stephen says:

    I grew up in Pennsylvania. Blue Laws enforced the observance of the sabbath in accordance with the Ten Commandments.

  14. I do think that it is relevant in a political sense that the founders of Marxist-Leninist communism which was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions were adamant atheist. Lenin stated: “”A Marxist must be a materialist, i. e., an enemy of religion, but a dialectical materialist, i. e., one who treats the struggle against religion not in an abstract way, not on the basis of remote, purely theoretical, never varying preaching, but in a concrete way, on the basis of the class struggle which is going on in practice and is educating the masses more and better than anything else could.” (see: http://www.conservapedia.com/Atheism ).

  15. Nizar MEDDEB says:

    Joseph,
    Do you know the meaning of communism? Now do you know what Atheist is or what he or she stands for?
    Would you please explain the political relevance to us ? (not that I expect an answer from you 🙂

  16. Steven T. Cramer says:

    Matthew,

    Very good post and interesting comments:

    Your one paragraph I think brings up an issue that many seem to glance at but fail to fully vet.

    “Second, some actions affect society more than others. If I smoke a cigarette every day, the worst result will be some secondhand smoke breathed by my family and maybe an early death from lung cancer. If I smoke crack every day, I’m going to have a hard time thinking, holding a normal job, having a good attitude with people, and generally contributing to society.”

    Point one seems to indicate smoking is private sphere as early death is the only consequence. But otherwise they can contribute to society.

    Second point indicates crack is bad because going to have “hard time…generally contributing to society.”

    So “contribution to society” seems to be a key element. And I agree that it is a key element in most government and religious philosophies. And I believe is a key moral question.

    If a child is born today what “contribution to society” does he owe if any?
    Does the geographic location of his birth change the required amount of contribution?
    Can the child ever completely pay off his contribution?
    To whom in society does this child owe his contribution?
    Does he have to pay his tithe to the church?
    Does he have to pay his tithe to his parents?
    Does he have to pay his tithe to his county, State, Country or UN?
    Is a genetic “gift” of intelligence thus increasing his required contribution?
    Could not a genetically impaired person be almost identical to the crack smoker above, in actual “contribution to society”?
    Didn’t the smoker above deprive society of his further contributions because of his early death?
    Wouldn’t abortion also deprive society of contributions?
    Wouldn’t the guy that works a job he loves over one at which he is better also deprive society of contributions?
    And if those in power are religious could they not claim that those that preach “atheism” also deprive the society of contributions?
    If I were to ask every man in society how much I owed him individually would that be equal to what I owed society collectively?
    Is there some sort of prize (or heaven) for the man that contributes the most to society?
    Do all have to play this game?
    Or is it all emotionally relative and I have to have faith to know the answers?

Leave a Reply