In 1787, fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia to draft the US Constitution. This document, consisting of seven articles that state conventions ratified, has subsequently been amended twenty-seven times. It is the foundation of US law. Many people claim that the Constitution is based on the Bible or that it created a Christian nation. The relationship between the two documents, however, is not that simple.
Is the US Constitution based on the Bible?
Most of the men who drafted the Constitution were Protestants. A majority identified as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists, but some were Deists, and two were Roman Catholics. They assured that the Constitution would encompass those of all religious faiths, or none at all. Although the Declaration of Independence (1776) mentioned God and proclaimed that all men were “created equal” and entitled to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the US Constitution never mentions the Bible or God other than the reference to “the Year of our Lord” before its signatures.
In fact, Article VI of the document provides that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Religious belief, or unbelief, is thus neither a qualification nor a disqualification for public office.
That said, the Constitution does express sensitivity to biblical convictions. For example, it permits presidents to swear or affirm their oaths, and it excludes the Christian day of rest (Sunday) from the ten-day time limit during which a president has to veto a law. The Preamble, like the biblical prophets, mentions the need to establish justice, while the first three articles assure that no one person or institution has absolute power.
Like the Bible, the document also recognizes the human need for law and order and sets itself up as a source of higher law that is superior to all other man-made laws. It echoes the Bible’s promotion of human worth by resting its authority on “the People,” without identifying them as God’s chosen ones. Later amendments similarly reinforce and expand the common dignity of humanity, which had been belied by the Founders’ compromises with slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865), for example, abolished slavery. Similarly, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) affirmed the citizenship of all persons born or naturalized in the United States and guaranteed all persons within its jurisdiction “equal protection of the laws.” It thereby echoed Paul’s words to the Athenians in Acts 17:27, that humans were “of one blood.”
James Madison, who played a major role at the Constitutional Convention, described the resulting document as recognizing that men are not angels and that human imperfection necessitates government. To prevent the abuse of power, the Constitution allocated national powers among three branches, each with an incentive to resist encroachments by the others. Without embracing monarchy, the new Constitution strengthened the powers of the national government over the state, much as ancient Israelites did in moving from a system of judges to kingship.
Other constitutional provisions for due process of law and standards for establishing treason resemble evidentiary requirements in the Hebrew Bible. The hierarchical system of courts further reflects a similar division of labor to that which Moses employed in Exod 18:17–22 after being visited by his father-in-law and helps assure the protection of inalienable rights.
Does the Constitution restrict how people use the Bible?
The First Amendment to the Constitution (1791) affirms that Congress (later also interpreted via the Fourteenth Amendment to include the states) should make no law “establishing religion,” thus leaving interpretations and application of the Bible, or other holy books, to individual consciences. Unlike Great Britain, the United States has no established church, and the Supreme Court has prevented direct governmental endorsement or financial support of religious institutions seeking to proselytize others.
The First Amendment also provides for the “free exercise” of religion, which gives Americans broad freedom to engage in religious activities that do not harm others. In combination with corresponding First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press, peaceable assembly, and petition, the document allows individuals to pursue their understandings of the Bible, or other holy books, in a manner that has consistently allowed them to prosper.
Although it is a secular document, the US Constitution has provided protections for the religious sensibilities of citizens—whose pledge to the flag includes the words “under God” and who have adopted “In God We Trust” as the national motto—to flourish.
Image Credit: Howard Chandler Christy, Signing of the Constitution, 1940, oil on canvas, 20′ x 30′ (cropped). Courtesy the Architect of the Capitol.