In April, Herb Silverman, a professor of mathematics at the College of Charleston and president of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, challenged readers of the Charleston Post & Courier to find God in the Constitution. Skip Johnson, an author and former Post and Courier religion writer, took on the challenge in a column in the Oct. 2 issue of Faith & Values. This is Silverman's rebuttal.
When I offered $1,000 to anyone who could find the words God or Jesus in the U.S. Constitution, I hoped it would inspire many citizens to carefully read our wonderful founding document. I commend local writer Skip Johnson for doing exactly that, and for making the best case he could for claiming the reward.
Johnson could not find either the words God or Jesus in the Constitution. Therefore, he did not meet the condition of the challenge. But, reluctant to admit it, Johnson tried several inferential or interpretive arguments from the words he did find in the Constitution. He also brought up several other documents. I'll respond to each of his points.
Johnson mentioned that the Constitution was signed "in the year of our Lord." This was the standard way of dating important documents in the 18th century. Its use was conventional, not religious, just as today we may use B.C. (Before Christ) or A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for "the year of our Lord").
Johnson next pointed out the constitutional requirement that elected officials take an oath or affirmation before they can serve. He claimed that oaths were necessarily a call to God even though the word "God" was not mentioned in the Constitution. However, at that time, kings would swear oaths by their crowns and knights would swear oaths by their knighthood, so the concept of swearing an oath to something other than God goes back a long time and was well-known in 1787.
Had our founders wanted officeholders to invoke God, they could have worded the oath to accomplish that objective. Instead, the oath or affirmation to uphold the Constitution contains no reference to God, need not be administered on the Bible and need not even be considered an oath. The option to either swear an oath or to make an affirmation was written into our Constitution for the purpose of including those who did not feel comfortable swearing an oath to anything, not just to God or some other deity.
Johnson then turned to Article 1, Section 7, Clause 2 of the Constitution, which allows the president an extra day to return a bill if the 10th day falls on a Sunday. He then hypothesized that the founders added this exception because they meant for Sunday to be a day of worship. He even contended that a case could thus be made that the Constitution is a Christian document.
In 1787, as now, Sunday was considered a day of rest. People were free to worship, rest or work. True, there were and are a large percentage of Christians in this country. An employer today who is an atheist may schedule Sundays off or excuse employees from working on their religious holidays.
For those who maintain we are a Christian country, I refer them to another document: Article 11 of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which states, "As the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion ..." This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams and ratified unanimously by the Senate. It was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, but only the third unanimous vote in the Senate's history.
So dates, oaths and Sundays are the only constitutional citations Johnson had to offer. He then attempted to buttress his argument for God's being in the Constitution with what he believes to be the "intent" of the founders.
First, Johnson mentioned that the Declaration of Independence refers to people being "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." The Declaration of Independence is not part of the Constitution. It is not a governing document. It was a call for rebellion against the British Crown. This emphasis on people having inalienable rights was a way for our founders to distinguish us from an empire that asserted the divine right of kings.
Johnson erred in thinking our currency in 1787 carried the motto "In God We Trust." The first such appearance came more than 75 years later during the Civil War, when both the North and South claimed to have God on their side. It didn't appear on all money until the shameful McCarthy era of the 1950s, also a time when "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Johnson then turned to an inaugural address of George Washington in which Washington referred to an "Almighty Being." Imagine that! A politician alluding to a deity (though not explicitly God or Jesus). After giving instances of similar public acts by politicians, Johnson asked: "Does it really seem like the people who wrote the Constitution intended to keep God out of it?"
Well, yes! They were a lot wiser than Johnson gives them credit for being. They were careful and thoughtful writers. Had they wanted to put God into the Constitution, they would have done so, specifically by name. To his credit, Johnson mentioned that several of his examples are "hints" of God being in the Constitution. He used such hints to assert that "atheists, legal extremists and other nitpickers tried to sweep away the Constitution writers' obvious intent." Well, unlike political utterances, the Constitution really is a legal document, the law of our land. I admit to being a legal extremist if, by that term, Johnson means placing more value on the words of the Constitution than on his opinion of the obvious intent of its writers.
Just as interesting as what Johnson said was what he didn't say. He ignored the only two references to religion in the Constitution. Article VI says that "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." And the First Amendment guarantees that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Johnson also failed to mention James Madison, affectionately known as the Father of our Constitution, who said, "The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the endless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries." Our founders understood the devastating nature of holy wars. They wisely established a secular nation whose authority rests with "We the People" (the first three words of the U.S. Constitution) and not with "Thou the Deity."