Chapter 17: A Secular Republic

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” 

–Thomas Jefferson (1)


“And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

–James Madison (2)

What is a Secular Republic?

Many Americans are familiar with the federal system established by the Constitution. What is less familiar is the extent to which the founders went to create a secular republic as well as a federal one. Indeed, one could argue that the United States was the world’s first secular republic. Secularism is a misunderstood word, especially by people with strong religious opinions who assume it means “opposition to religion.” Part of this misunderstanding is reasonable, as some secularists have expressed their opposition to religion, but we ought not to let that distract us from the real issue here. Just because some Republicans advocate polygamy doesn’t mean we should conclude that such advocacy is a key feature of the Republican party’s belief system.

A secular republic is one that is characterized by a separation between government and religion. Above all, it means to avoid the trappings of theocracy in all its variations. (3) In a secular republic, people are free to practice religion or non-religion in peace; church and state are separated; people of differing faiths are treated equally before the law; and religious tests and oaths are not required to vote or hold office.

The European Roots of American Secularism

The Constitution was firmly rooted in the Enlightenment’s secular philosophy. In his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), English philosopher John Locke argued in favor of religious toleration and tried to “distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” The American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution happened during the same period as a fight in England against what were called the Test and Corporation Acts, which prohibited Catholics from holding office there. The American founders were sympathetic with the arguments of Joseph Priestly, co-discoverer of oxygen and a founder of Unitarianism, and James Burgh, a Scottish minister and political writer, who both wanted the Test and Corporation Acts to be repealed. Burgh wrote, “Away with all foolish distinctions about religious opinions. Those with different religious views are both equally fit for being employed in the service of our country.” (4)

The Constitution reflected the Enlightenment views of many of the leading lights of the founding generation. They were, as the author Susan Jacoby has described them, some of the first in a long line of freethinkers with respect to religion in public life. (5) This personal characteristic made them revolutionaries in more than one sense. Thomas Jefferson was most proud of three of his accomplishments: The Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing and passing the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty in 1786. Under his design, the University of Virginia did not have a church on school grounds, and he forbade teaching theology. When the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty passed, Jefferson declared that there would be “freedom for the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination.” (6) James Madison thought that the presence of chaplains in Congress or the army was unconstitutional and warned against “the danger of a direct mixture of Religion and Civil Government.” (7) John Adams had contempt for any priests commingling with governmental affairs. “Nothing is more dreaded,” he wrote in 1812, “than the national government meddling with religion.” (8) George Washington, too, was steeped in Enlightenment Deism, and declined to ask for an Episcopal clergyman at his deathbed. He wrote thousands of letters that rarely mention Jesus Christ or Christianity, instead, preferring Deist phrases such as Providence, the Supreme Being, and the Great Ruler of Events. He attended church about once a month and conspicuously left before communion. (9) Dr. Thomas Young, one of Boston’s leading revolutionaries and the man who first publicly advocated throwing the British East India Company’s tea into the harbor in 1773, was a life-long Deist. At the age of twenty-five, Young was tried and convicted for the charge that he “did. . . speak and publish these Wicked false and Blasphemous Words concerning the said Christian religion (to wit) Jesus Christ was a knave and a fool.” (10)

Secularism in the U.S. Constitution

Street Sign: Intersection of Church and State.
Street Sign: Intersection of Church and State.

Secular features are manifest throughout the U.S. Constitution. The American Constitution’s authors learned well from Britain’s bitter experience with respect to religion and the state. Religious tests are explicitly banned in Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Apparently, this provision passed through the Constitutional Convention with very little debate, which was remarkable given that eleven of the thirteen states had religious tests for public office. In Delaware, for example, office holders were required to affirm their “faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God blessed forevermore.” (11)

Aside from banning religious tests, the Constitution also distinctively failed to invoke God. This again departed from most state constitutions of the day. The Articles of Confederation referred to “the Great Governor of the World,” and the Declaration of Independence made its Deist reference to “the Creator,” by which it meant a God ensconced in Nature and subject to natural laws. But the Constitution explicitly and intentionally failed to mention God, the Creator, the Great Governor, the Supreme Being, or any other such reference. Before entering office, the president is required to make an oath or affirmation pledging to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution, but the oath does not have to be on a Bible, nor is “so help me God” a part of the affirmation.

When the Constitutional Convention’s work became publicly known, the document’s secular character elicited widespread criticism from those who felt it was a godless Constitution. At the Massachusetts ratifying convention, one critic said that without a religious test for the president, “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.” On March 7, 1788, a writer for the Massachusetts Gazette criticized the Constitution for failing to invoke God, by writing that “it is more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the publick protection of religion.” (12) In the North Carolina ratification debate, Reverend David Caldwell disapprovingly said that the secular nature of the Constitution was “an invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us. At some future period this might endanger the character of the United States.” (13) This criticism contrasted markedly with the Federalists’ defenses of the Constitution. When political philosopher Donald Lutz examined the sources the Federalists drew upon in their writings, he found that exactly zero percent of them came from the Bible. He concluded that “the Federalists’ inclination to Enlightenment rationalism is most evident here in their failure to consider the Bible relevant” in defending the Constitution. (14)

During the ratification debates, critics made numerous attempts to amend the Constitution to add religious tests and/or to add references to God. One such attempt came in Connecticut’s ratifying convention, where delegate William Williams proposed to replace the Constitution’s preamble with his longer version below:

The Constitution’s preamble
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Williams’ suggested preamble:
“We the people of the United States in a firm belief of the being and perfection of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: that He will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence on His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union, etc., as it is expressed in the present introduction, do ordain, etc.”

The Connecticut delegates voted it down. In Virginia, an attempt was made to replace the “no religious test” language of Article VI with “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one and only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of evil.” That wasn’t accepted at the Virginia convention. In fact, all attempts to inject God and religious tests into the Constitution were defeated. (15)

During the Civil War, Protestant fundamentalists and other religiously-minded people created the National Reform Association, which pushed for a Constitutional Amendment to reword the preamble to the Constitution as follows:

“Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government. . .”

President Abraham Lincoln—who spoke frequently of “God’s purpose” even though he was never a member of any church and was outspoken in his religious skepticism in his 20’s—offered no support for the amendment. Similarly, Congress made no serious effort to pass the amendment. We should note, however, that in 1864 Congress added the motto “In God We Trust” to U.S. currency. The National Reform Association continued to advocate in vain for the Christian amendment until the organization dissolved in 1945. (16)

The Cold War saw additional attempts to undercut secularism in America. Despite the fact that President Truman was a lifelong Baptist, an additional attempt to pass a Christian amendment to the Constitution during his presidency was, according to scholar Dianne Kirby, “easily defeated.” (17) With President Eisenhower’s encouragement, in 1954 Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance—clearly a product of the McCarthy-era’s fear of godless communism. Note that the motto “In God We Trust” and the phrase “under God” were added to money and the Pledge of Allegiance, respectively, and are not part of America’s secular Constitution. Note, also, that America’s first unofficial motto—E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one”—is still on the Great Seal of the United States and more properly reflects the religious and ethnic diversity of the American experiment even though it originally referred to the unity of the 13 diverse colonies.

The Advantages of Secularism

Why a secular republic? Several advantages of secularism come to mind. Secularism promotes order and peace between different religions, because of what Jacques Berlinerblau refers to as the secular compact, which is the understanding that the state guarantees people freedom to believe or not believe whatever they want in an orderly society, and in exchange, all citizens agree to limit their religious practices to those that do not violate the law or disrupt society. In essence, one can believe whatever one wants but can only act on those beliefs that don’t hurt others or destabilize society.

Another advantage is that religion, atheism, and agnosticism all tend to thrive in secular republics, perhaps because secularism separates state authority from not only the dominant religion, but from all sects equally. As Berlinerblau put it, “Secularism is a fierce and principled defender of religious liberty—perhaps civilization’s best defender of it.” (18) Secularism defends freedom of conscience, which is a bedrock of democracy. A society in which individuals cannot articulate spiritual truths for themselves is not likely to allow people much freedom to publicize and advocate for any of their worldly beliefs either—especially if they differ from those who hold the reins of power.

References and Notes

  1. Quoted in Robert W. Tracinski, “America: The Secular Republic,” Capitalism Magazine. July 1, 2002.
  2. James Madison to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822. The Writings of James Madison. National Archives Founders Online.
  3. A theocracy is rule by religious authorities and divine guidance.
  4. Quoted in Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution. A Moral Defense of the Secular State. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Page 83.
  5. Susan Jacoby,Freethinkers. A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004. Notice that this is different than saying they were anti-religious. Many were quite religious, others were Diests, and a few like Paine were distinctly anti-clerical.
  6. Quoted by Brooke Allen, “Our Godless Constitution,” The Nation, February 25, 2005. Online edition.
  7. See Robin Morgan, “Fighting Words for a Secular America,” in Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians, What We Do Now. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2004. Page 127.
  8. Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution. Page 102.
  9. David L. Holmes, Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pages 59-71.
  10. Matthew Stuart, Nature’s God. The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. Page 56.
  11. Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution. Page 29-30.
  12. Jacoby, Freethinkers. Pages 29-30.
  13. Morton Borden, “The Christian Amendment,” Civil War History. Volume 25 (2). June 1979. Page 157.
  14. Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review. Vol. 78, No. 1. March, 1984. Pages 189-197. Quote from 194.
  15. See Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution. Pages 34-37.
  16. Morton Borden, “The Christian Amendment,” Civil War History. Volume 25 (2). June 1979. Pages 156-167.
  17. Dianne Kirby, “The Cold War and American Religion,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias. May 24, 2017. Page 8 of 29. Retrieved July 19, 2021.
  18. Jacques Berlinerblau, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Page 17.

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