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.
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?
“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.