Why God is in the Declaration but not the Constitution

Page one of the original Constitution of the United States. (U.S. National Archives)

No country venerates its “Founding Fathers” like the United States. Academics, legislators, judges, and ordinary citizens all frequently seek to validate their opinions and policy prescriptions by identifying them with the statesmen who led America to nationhood. It is not surprising, therefore, that debates about the role of religion in the United States are infused with references to the faith of the Founding Fathers and to the two greatest documents they gave to the fledgling republic: the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. People across the religious spectrum, from the most devout believers to the most committed atheists, look to these documents for support. Yet the blessings they offer are mixed. The Declaration contains several references to God, the Constitution none at all. The reasons for this variation reveal a great deal about the founding principles of the United States.

The Declaration of Independence is an apology for revolution. Support for a complete break with Great Britain was growing stronger week by week in the spring of 1776, both in the Continental Congress and in the thirteen colonies at large. On June 7, 1776, a resolution advocating independence was presented to Congress by Richard Henry Lee of the Virginia delegation. Four days later Congress appointed a committee of five delegates to draft a document explaining the historic separation it would soon be voting on.

The resulting Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and edited by his fellow delegates, contains a theory of rights that depends on a Supreme Being, not man, for its validity. The Declaration states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is possible to see in these words an affirmation of the Founders’ religious faith, but God-given rights had less to do with theology in the summer of 1776 than they did with rebellion.

In stating that people’s rights were given to them by their creator, the Continental Congress endowed those rights with a legitimacy that knows no parallel in mortal sources. What God has given to man is not enjoyed at the sufferance of any monarch or government. Liberty is the inviolable birthright of all. The right of revolution proclaimed by the Declaration flows directly from this notion of inviolability: it is to secure people’s divinely endowed and unalienable rights that governments, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” are established. The people consequently have the right and indeed the duty to alter or abolish a form of government that becomes tyrannical.

The Declaration contains several other references to a higher power. The introduction states that the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle the American people to a separate and equal station among the powers of the earth. In the conclusion, Congress appeals to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for the rectitude of its intentions and professes its “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” In each case, reference to a deity serves to validate the assertion of independence.

The genius of the Declaration is the inclusive way the divine is given expression. The appellations of God are generic. Adherents of traditional theistic sects can read the words “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Supreme Judge,” and understand them to mean the god they worship. The claims made on numerous Christian websites attest to this. Yet opponents of dogma read those same words and see an embracive, non-sectarian concept of divinity. This is no small testimony to the wisdom and foresight of the Founding Fathers. All Americans could support the Revolution and independence. All can regard their rights as unalienable, their liberty as inviolable.

Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution contains no reference to God. At first, this may seem odd. Why did the men who drafted the Declaration invoke a Supreme Being several times, while the men who drafted the Constitution did not mention a higher power even once? Only six individuals signed both documents, so it could be hypothesized that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that convened in Philadelphia in 1787 were a different and less religious group then the delegates to the Continental Congress, or perhaps that the delegates to the Continental Congress were savvy freethinkers cynically manipulating people’s belief in God to win support for their overthrow of British rule. Neither explanation holds water. Some of the Founders were conventional Christians and some were not, but the belief in a deity implied in the Declaration was sincere and likely universal among the delegates to both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. And a belief in the possibility of divine favor was held by even some of the least religious Founders. So, again, why no invocation of God in the second major founding document?

The threefold answer lies in the stated purposes of the Constitution, its religious neutrality, and the theory of government it embodies. Whereas the Declaration explained and justified a rebellion to secure God-given rights, the Constitution is a blueprint for stable and effective republican government in a free country. The Preamble to the Constitution declares that its purposes are “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” These are wholly secular objects; religious references are extraneous in a document drafted to further them.

Eighteenth century America was religiously diverse, and by the time of the Revolution religion was widely viewed as a matter of voluntary individual choice. The Constitution acknowledged these realities and, unlike contemporary European political orders, promoted no sect and took no position whatsoever on theological issues. There is no state religion and Article VI of the Constitution provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The absence of references to a deity in the Constitution is consistent with the strict religious neutrality of the entire document.

The Constitution established a strong national government to replace the relatively feeble Confederation Congress created by the Revolutionary-era Articles of Confederation, but the Constitution is hardly a document glorifying top-down power. On the contrary, the theory of government underpinning the United States Constitution is popular sovereignty. The government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from an assembly of elders, not from a king or a prelate, and not from a higher power. The stirring opening words of the Preamble, “We the People of the United States,” make it clear both who is establishing the government and for whose benefit it exists. There is no consent required beyond the will of the people for the people to govern themselves.

This view that the Constitution is a bold assertion of popular sovereignty is often countered by pointing out how elitist some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were and how allegedly undemocratic the document they drafted was. Only the members of the House of Representatives were initially chosen directly by voters. Senators were to be chosen indirectly by state legislatures, and the President by electors appointed by the state legislatures.

This criticism confuses an admittedly elitist preference for government by the able with a theory of power emanating from above. The Constitution not only rejected monarchy, but all forms of hereditary privilege and arbitrary rule. It established fixed rules that delimited the powers of the governors, not the rights of the governed. It is to the citizens and the states, not to the executive, that legislators are answerable. The source of all legislative and executive power can be traced, directly or indirectly, to the people.

And in the early years of the American republic, the people in question were deeply suspicious of power. There was considerable opposition to the Constitution as initially drafted, both in the state conventions called to ratify it and among ordinary Americans. Opponents believed that a centralization of authority would lead to tyranny and argued either for outright rejection or, at a minimum, for amendments to limit the powers of the new government and safeguard liberties. In such an anti-power environment, few Americans wished to see their new rulers claim, as European rulers did, that their authority was divine in origin. In creating a political order based on popular sovereignty, the Founding Fathers thus turned prevailing European political theory on its head. In place of the divine right of monarchs, the Declaration asserted the divine rights of all men, and both the Declaration and the Constitution source the legitimacy of political rule exclusively in the consent of the governed.

The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution do not therefore represent competing views of the existence of a Supreme Being or its role in American political life. They are two sides of the same coin. When read together, the Declaration and Constitution tell us that the people’s rights are divine in origin, sacred and unalienable, while governments are human in origin, answerable to the people and dependent entirely on their consent.

More from Anthony J. Minna

Why God is in the Declaration but not the Constitution

No country venerates its “Founding Fathers” like the United States. Academics, legislators,...
Read More

22 Comments

  • Is it really true that no other country venerates its founders like the United States? How do other countries born out of colonialism in South America, Africa, and Asia remember the leaders of their liberation? How do American attitudes toward politicians of the late 1770s compare to the personality cult of Mao in China and similar reverence for individuals elsewhere?

    • The sad reality is that for the large majority of former colonies independence was followed either immediately or within a few years by despotism. In many cases it was the ‘liberators’ themselves who, once in power, became the despots. Far from being venerated, some of these men are widely reviled today. See for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Mac%C3%ADas_Nguema.

      There is undoubtedly reverence for the vision and accomplishments of men like Simón Bolivar, Kwame Nkrumah, and others. But unlike Americans, who see the Founding Fathers as the men who led the fight for independence and then created a stable political order that fostered liberty and prosperity, many Latin Americans and Africans look at the hopes and dreams of independence, see the authoritarianism, corruption, economic underperformance, and frequent bloodshed that followed, and ask what went wrong. An African scholar struggles with the question in this journal article, his contribution to the countless books and articles devoted to the subject: http://www.academia.edu/7368517/Why_the_African_States_Fall_Apart_and_Who_is_to_be_Blamed

      Meddling by Americans and Europeans is often assigned a portion of the blame, but flawed founders and flawed regimes are frequently cited as well. I don’t know of any nation that reveres a larger group of founders (not merely a cult of personality surrounding one person) and sees their work and its long-term results so favorably.

      You mentioned Mao. Though certainly respected by large numbers of Chinese, he is by no means universally loved. See the Legacy section in the Wikipedia entry on Mao https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_Zedong

      The Chinese Communist Party censors criticism of Mao (even as it rejects his economic theories and embraces a market economy), so it’s difficult to know the true extent of the reverence and the scorn. It will be interesting to see how Mao is regarded by ordinary Chinese should the censorship ever be lifted.

      Canada has its Fathers of Confederation. In 1867 they united four British North American colonies, soon to be joined by other provinces and territories, to create a free, stable, and prosperous country. Yet these “Fathers” are not referred to or cited with anywhere near the same frequency as their American counterparts. Nor do they get the same respect:

      “The Americans rightly revere their founding fathers; the American constitution is a magnificent thing. The Fathers of Confederation, on the other hand, should have been horsewhipped. Maybe it was the champagne at Charlottetown, or the rain at Quebec. But the framers of the British North America Act bequeathed Canada one of the democratic world’s worst constitutions.” John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail, August 10, 2000 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/bna-act-spawned-113-years-of-complaints/article769219/.

      • Excellent, provocative article! Religious neutrality and a government answerable to the people has been bedrocks of our pluralistic society.

        As you point out, there are a prodigious number of books and political references to the US founding fathers. Rightly so we are proud of their courage in breaking away to found a new government, one that has beneficially evolved and prospered. Although the European colonies in the Americas may not be great examples, other countries take pride in their founders including Indians who revere Gandhi, South Africans Mandela and Israelis Ben-Gurion. These more recent founding leaders will likely stand the test of time and will be venerated by future generations much like American do for their founding fathers. It is a great thing to be proud of those who founded our nations.

      • This frankly seems like a selective evaluation. Simon Bolivar is memorialized in the political philosophy of a country’s ruling party, the name of a currency, and the name of an entire country. We Americans have a city and state named Washington and his face on money, but we didn’t name the money or the whole country after him. Our political system doesn’t have Washington Societies anymore (not since the fade of the Federalist Party).

        To Gene Procknow’s examples we can add Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. Politicians in all those countries invoke their early predecessors with the same sort of respect, or perhaps even more, that our American politicians express when alluding to the US Founders.

        I certainly agree that other countries, such as Canada, don’t swagger around about their Founders (or anything else). And other countries, such as Turkmenistan or North Korea, suffer from state-enforced personality cults. The American situation differs from both of those.

        But I think a claim of uniqueness for the US or any nation needs a very high level of evidence.

        • Does American exceptionalism count? When considered alongside Turner’s frontier thesis and its impact on the creation of democratic institutions it seems like a strong argument can be made in defense of just how unique this country’s history is from others.

    • I agree- an excellent, unbiased view of the two Great State Papers; too often the Fathers are misquoted on religion- Mr. Minna’s explanation is more along the lines of how the founders saw things

  • Thanks to allthingsliberty for posting what I think is one of the best, brief, non-academic and non-partisan articles on this subject. In many ways it aligns with Donald Lutz’s
    brilliant academic essay entitled, “The Declaration of Independence as Part of an American National Compact” (Publius, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 41-58 )
    URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3330564

    Lutz argued that, “The political compact in turn was derived from political covenants, the primary difference being that a compact did not call in God as a witness to the agreement, but essentially rested the force of the document upon the will of those agreeing to it-what we now call popular sovereignty.” (41)

  • The Declaration contains several references to God, the Constitution none at all. The reasons for this variation reveal a great deal about the founding principles of the United States.

    Or not. Because drafting the Constitution was headache enough, and the various Christian denominations could never be unified, religion was left to the states. God is in every state constitution.

    http://www.usconstitution.net/consttime.html

    These godless constitution memes skip over that. The point is that there’s still a higher law than man’s, than the government’s or Supreme Court’s construal of the Constitution. See “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

    https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

  • You write that “Because drafting the Constitution was headache enough, and the various Christian denominations could never be unified, religion was left to the states.” But the states, without exception, adopted the approach to religion found in the Constitution and the First Amendment. Indeed some states, for example Virginia, acted first and served as an example for the federal approach. Thus, one by one, the states disestablished their Anglican/Episcopal and Congregational churches. With the exception of Connecticut (1818) and Massachusetts (1833), disestablishment was complete by the end of 1790. Religious restrictions on voting were likewise repealed in every state where they had once existed by 1790. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed in every state. Religious tests as a requirement for holding public office were also abolished one by one, beginning in Georgia (Constitution of 1789), Delaware (Constitution of 1792), and Vermont (Constitution of 1793). Seven states still have constitutional provisions disqualifying persons who deny the existence of God from holding office, but these provisions by and large ceased to be enforced in the early years of the twentieth century and were unanimously ruled a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments by the US Supreme Court in 1961.

    The references to God In the state constitutions largely imitate the ones made in the Declaration. (The other mentions of God are found in provisions that stipulate people are free to worship according to the dictates of their consciences, or in a description of “an emergency caused by disaster or act of God,” or in the “so help me God” of prescribed oaths, etc.) They acknowledge God (or the “Creator,” the “Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” etc.) as the source of the people’s liberties and many of them invoke His favor and guidance. These references are almost always found in the Preambles, side by side with an unequivocal expression of popular authorship, and sometimes an enumeration of secular objects, that echoes the Preamble of the federal constitution.

    We, the people of the State of Arizona, grateful to Almighty God for our liberties, do ordain this Constitution.

    We, the People of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do establish this Constitution.

    To perpetuate the principles of free government, insure justice to all, preserve peace, promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family, and transmit to posterity the enjoyment of liberty, we the people of Georgia, relying upon the protection and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution.

    We the people of Maine, in order to establish justice, insure tranquility, provide for our mutual defense, promote our common welfare, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty, acknowledging with grateful hearts the goodness of the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe in affording us an opportunity, so favorable to the design; and, imploring God’s aid and direction in its accomplishment, do agree to form ourselves into a free and independent State, by the style and title of the State of Maine and do ordain and establish the following Constitution for the government of the same.

    We, the people of the State of Washington, grateful to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for our liberties, do ordain this constitution.

    Every single state constitution contains an affirmation of popular sovereignty. Two further examples:

    That all power being originally inherent in and co[n]sequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them. (Vermont, Article 6)

    Through Divine goodness, all people have by nature the rights of worshiping and serving their Creator according to the dictates of their consciences, of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring and protecting reputation and property, and in general of obtaining objects suitable to their condition, without injury by one to another; and as these rights are essential to their welfare, for due exercise thereof, power is inherent in them; and therefore all just authority in the institutions of political society is derived from the people, and established with their consent, to advance their happiness; and they may for this end, as circumstances require, from time to time, alter their Constitution of government. (Delaware, Preamble)

    The references to God in the state constitutions restate the assertions made in the Declaration about the divine origin of the people’s liberty, transferring them from one founding document to another, as it were, just as every state constitution restates the assertion of popular sovereignty made in the federal constitution and shares its approach toward denominational privilege and religious liberty. The state constitutions thus combine the guiding principles of the Declaration and the United States Constitution in a single document; they don’t assert different principles.

    My argument is not that America is officially theistic or officially godless (that’s not the debate you’re looking for, by any chance?), but rather that the Declaration and the Constitution tell us it is a country founded on notions of unalienable rights and government answerable to the people. The Founding Fathers invoked God in expressing the first of these ideas in the Declaration, but not when expressing the second idea in the Constitution. For the reasons stated in my article, I think their assertions of these doctrines were effective in both cases owing to the approach taken.

    You also state “The point is that there’s still a higher law than man’s, than the government’s or Supreme Court’s construal of the Constitution.” Law-abiding people everywhere struggle with the question of compliance with laws that conflict with their moral convictions or that they otherwise consider unjust, especially when those laws were enacted by their own democratically elected representatives. If there is a simple solution to that dilemma, I’m not aware of it. The Declaration states that the people have God-given rights and that a form of government that becomes tyrannical can be altered or abolished. Perhaps that same right to abolish a tyrannical government can be read into the references to God-given liberties in the state constitutions. But none of the references to God in the state constitutions mention a different set of laws that are also in force in the country or the state, or concede that the laws of the federal or state government can be obeyed or not at the option of each individual when they conflict with what he considers to be a “higher law.”

    • But the states, without exception, adopted the approach to religion found in the Constitution and the First Amendment.

      What is that approach? Much is made of the Establishment Clause, but little of the Free Exercise clause. The question is not popular sovereignty vs. a covenant with God, but of “the naked public square” that today’s godless constitutionalists insist the Constitution demands. But as we know, religion was seen as an obvious public good–government buildings were lent for religious services during the construction of the city of Washington DC.

      Under federalism, the states were free to be religious or not. Further, the necessary unanimity of denomination for an established state church was also at work in the individual states. [Indeed, Massachusetts eventually disestablished Congregationalism over the unitarian controversy. But although there was an established church, there was no theocracy.]

      And as you note, even after Torcaso v. Watkins some states still even have religious tests for statewide office on the books today, as did 11 of the original 13 states. Did the US get less and less religious as a nation and as a society? Certainly. But the Constitution does not demand it, and the Bill or Rights did not demand the end of religious tests either.

      The current crisis is about the state’s interference with society and the individual in the area of religion. This is 180 degrees from the “founding principles.” Indeed, even that rights are God-given is no longer self-evident, which is why “rights talk” is increasingly incoherent. But that rights are not God-given would have been a preposterous thought to the Founders. Unless you’re prepared to argue that leaving God out of the Constitution was an explicit rejection of that concept.

      WHY GOD IS IN THE DECLARATION BUT NOT THE CONSTITUTION

      Perhaps you are.

  • I agree except in Article I, Section 7, there is a mention that no bill can be signed into law on a Sunday. Could this be a reference to doing god’s work?

    It is true there were only 6 signers of both documents; however 4 were from PA.

    BTW – The Virginia historical society refers to the D of I as a propaganda document. It indicts the king.

  • There is, of course, the reason offered up in the story that, when asked why God did not appear in the Constitution, Hamilton said, “We forgot.”

  • Good piece. Many sources note that the state constitutions included various religious tests when the U.S. Constitution was adopted, but far fewer note that the states uniformly moved in the direction of a clear separation of church and state. This was not to create an empty, godless public square, but to get government out of religion and religion out of government. See Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.

    • but far fewer note that the states uniformly moved in the direction of a clear separation of church and state. This was not to create an empty, godless public square, but to get government out of religion and religion out of government

      But what even fewer note is that the Constitution does not require such strict separation! Contrary to prevailing opinion and current judicial interventions, it was up to the individual states to decide how more or less religious they would be.

      That is the point of reminding folks that religion was left up to the states, something even Jefferson acknowledged.

      “This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority.”
      –Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, 1808

      http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions60.html

      And FTR, Jefferson’s context of “church and state” was sectarianism, that the ruling Congregationalists might mess with Danbury, Connecticut’s Baptists. A long way from the current crisis.

  • My ancestor, Governor Arthur Fenner, ruled the smallest country in the world. When Arthur was elected Governor of Rhode Island on May 5, 1790 Rhode Island had not agreed to join the other 12 colonies in forming The United States of America. After gaining assurances that the Bill Of Rights was on the way, Rhode Island became the 13th and last state to ratify the Constitution on 5/29/1790. In those 24 days Governor Arthur Fenner ruled over the “nation” of Rhode Island and the Providence-Plantations!

  • I must disagree about the Declaration of Independence being an apology.
    When one reads it, it isn’t heavy hearted with regret. It is a statement to the entire civilized world concerning the Rights and Liberties of a people beset by unfair governmental treatment, with every infraction named, and many were left off. Mr. Jefferson’s original writings included as he wrote, 80 plus 1 (though only 28 remained in the final draft) despotic infractions against the American Colonists who viewed themselves as freeborn Englishmen, who shared the same ancient Rights as their British brethren across the sea.

    God is referenced as the Great Judge of the Universe, and Protector of all mankind who only wish to live as He intended man to live, with the Rights and Liberties that God had instilled in our hearts at birth as His Divine Blessings to all mankind, but there are times when a people must take a stand to secure these Blessings, for they can not be taken or sold, only trampled. And sometimes it requires a people to take stance and take up arms to secure from the despotic dictates of a tyrant.

    So that with reference to God in the Declaration, one sees that it is in truth a statement as God is witness, that these people will not live as slaves, and that they will with this break, be their own masters, with no monarch above them, only requesting the humble protections the God and Heaven can, and do provide to a people seeking His Liberty from oppression.

  • Nature’s God, Creator, are terms used in Deism which was the Religion most of the Founding Fathers practiced and was spreading during the Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason. To read into it as a reference to a Christian God is erroneous. Deists found in their belief that a “Creator” created the whole universe and an infinite amount of “Natural Laws” to govern and has since had no other involvement. Man has through Myth, Fiction, Legend, and Folklore interjected his on “manmade” mysticism into Christianity in order to explain what is unexplainable in primitive terms. One has to do no more than to go to the Smithsonian and look at the history of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible to see reason during that era. He took the New Testament and edited it to remove all the magic performed by Christ. The Civil War and traveling evangelicals of that era have taken us back to a more fallible time from which we haven’t recover from yet… https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *