How the ‘Christian Nation’ Narrative Has Changed

I’ve noted before how the Christian right’s narrative about the Constitution and Christianity had changed so dramatically. The response from conservative preachers at the time of the Constitution was that it was a godless document that would bring down the wrath of God upon us all. Warren Throckmorton offers an excellent example in Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale, who wrote:

The second of these reasons is, the sinful character of our nation. Notwithstanding the prevalence of Religion, which I have described, the irreligion, and the wickedness, of our land are such, as to furnish a most painful and melancholy prospect to a serious mind. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgment of God ; without any recognition of his mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessing upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God.

He was hardly alone in this. During the state ratification conventions, many delegates complained about the fact that the Constitution contained no language about a national covenant with God and especially that, because of the No Religious Test clause of Article VI, actually allowed non-Christians to serve (not to mention the wrong kind of Christians; much of the furor was over the fact that “papists” could hold office). Historians Isaac Kramnick and Lawrence Moore offered many examples in their book The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State:

If there was little debate in Philadelphia over the “no religious test” clause, a veritable firestorm broke out in the country at large during the ratification conventions in each of the states. Outraged Protestants attacked what they saw, correctly, as a godless Constitution. The “no religious test” clause was perceived by many to be the gravest defect of the Constitution. Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state’s ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Amos Singletary, another delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, was upset at the Constitution’s not requiring men in power to be religious “and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they.” In New Hampshire the fear was of “a papist, a Mohomatan [sic], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government.” Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, wamed that “the exclusion of religious tests” was “dangerous and impolitic” and that “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [sic] might obtain offices among us.” If there is no religious test, he asked, “to whom will they [officeholders] swear support-the ancient pagan gods of jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?”

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