Dispatches from the Creation Wars

In the midst of a flap over Howard Dean’s sudden conversion to the summonings of the spirit, Sandra Jacoby has an op-ed piece in the Times that includes something I’ve long said about the secular nature of the Constitution. She writes,

The 18th-century public’s understanding of the Constitution as a secular document can perhaps best be gauged by the reaction of religious conservatives at the time. For example, the Rev. John M. Mason, a fire-breathing New York City minister, denounced the absence of God in the preamble as “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” He warned that “we will have every reason to tremble, lest the governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.” But unlike many conservatives today, Mason acknowledged even as he deplored the Constitution’s uncompromising secularism.

Mason was by no means alone. Among the religious right of the time, from Patrick Henry to dozens of prominent preachers around the country, the Constitution was roundly condemned as a “Godless document” that would bring the fury of heaven raining down upon us all. Attempts were made to fix this oversight in the state ratifying conventions, but they all failed. For 150 years after the passage of the constitution, organizations like the National Reform Association offered “Christian nation” amendments to the constitution, to declare our dependence upon God or Christ or Divine Providence; all of those attempts failed. Then suddenly, in the mid 20th century, the tactics shifted. Instead of arguing that the Constitution was a secular document that needed to be amended to avoid the wrath of the Lord, they suddenly began to argue the opposite – that it intended a Christian Nation all along and that the theocrats who had lost all of the battles over the constitution were suddenly the key to interpreting the true meaning of the text that they themselves rejected as a product of godlessness.