How the ‘Christian Nation’ Narrative Has Changed

More specific fears were clearly at work here. The absence of religious tests, it was feared, would open up the national government to control by Jews, Catholics, and Quakers. The Reverend David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate in North Carolina, worried that the Constitution now offered an invitation to “Jews and pagans of every kind” to govern us. Major Thomas Lusk, a delegate in Massachusetts, denounced Article 6 of the Constitution and shuddered “at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists, and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.” A delegate in North Carolina waved a pamphlet that depicted the possibility that the pope of Rome might be elected president. Calming himself down, he warned the delegates that in “the course of four or five hundred years” it was most certain that “Papists may occupy that [presidential] chair.” More realistically, it was fear of Quakers, and of their pacifism and antislavery views, that helped fuel the debate. In Charleston, South Carolina, a writer in the City Gazette warned on January 3, 1788, that “as there will be no religious test,” the Quakers “will have weight, in proportion to their numbers, in the great scale of continental govemment.” An anticonstitutional article written for the New York Daily Advertiser that same January and widely reprinted within days in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts papers pulled no punches about the social repercussions of Article 6. No religious tests admitted to national lawmaking: “lst. Quakers, who will make the blacks saucy, and at the same time deprive us of the means of defence-2dly. Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity-3dly. Deists, abominable wretches-4thly. Negroes, the seed of Cain -5thly Beggars, who when set on horseback will ride to the devil-6thly. Jews etc. etc.” Not quite finished with the last, the newspaper writer feared that since the Constitution stupidly gave command of the whole militia to the president, “should he hereafter be a]ew, our dear posterity may be ordered to rebuild Jerusalem.”

The prohibition of religious tests was seen by many opponents as the operative sign of the Constitutions more basic flaw-its general godless quality, its seeming indifference to religion. Diputants around America complained, as the writer “Philadelphiensis” did in November 1787, of the framers’ “silence” and “indifference about religion.” An anonymous writer in the Virginia Independent Chronicle cautioned in October 1787 about “the pernicious effects” of the Constitution’s “general disregard of religion,” its “cold indifference towards religion.” Thomas Wilson, also of Virginia, insisted that the “Constitution is de[i]stical in principle, and in all probability the composers had no thought of God in all their consultations.” There is some truth in Mr. Wilson’s observation. When Benjamin Franklin, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, urged the delegates to open their sessions with prayers, a request cited often today by the religious right, the delegates, more worried about worldly matters like Shays’s Rebellion and America’s financial instability under the Articles of Confederation, voted to adjourn for the day rather than discuss Franklin’s suggestion. The matter was never brought up again.

Deism was, as we shall see, a powerful force among the intellectuals of the founding generation, even among many of the delegates in Philadelphia. A nondoctrinaire religion, deism rejected a supernatural faith built around an anthropomorphic God who intervened in human affairs, either in answer to prayer or for other, inscrutable reasons. Instead, it posited a naturalistic religion with a God understood as a supreme intelligence who after creating the world destined it to operate forever after according to natural, rational, and scientific laws. No surprise, then, that a frequent claim heard in 1787 and 1788 was that the Constitution represented a deistic conspiracy to overthrow the Christian commonwealth. This view was most powerfully put by the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, pamphleteer “Aristocrotis” in a piece aptly titled “The Government of Nature Delineated or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution.”

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