Books: The Godless Constitution

by | Jun 10, 1998

Ayn Rand held that the new intellectuals have to continue the Founders' basic political line by reminding the world that man has a right to his own life, liberty, and happiness. Kramnic and Moore ultimately achieve this in Godless Constitution.

Revisionist history threatens America’s freedoms. And among the people who use its methodology of setting arbitrary standards, dropping relevant context, and lying — for example, multiculturalists, feminists, socialists — are America’s self-proclaimed patriots and defenders: conservative Christians. The Godless Constitution, a compact book by two Cornell University professors, political scientist Isaac Kramnick and historian R. Laurence Moore, provides a keen, objective antidote to their revisionist standard that America is based on God and Christianity.

Deist’, ‘Infidel’, ‘opposer of Christianity’, ‘Atheist, and ‘Devil’ are among the names Jefferson was called by his adversaries, particularly conservative Christians.

Kramnick and Moore expertly demonstrate how intellectual and political history lead to God and Christianity’s absence in the U.S. Constitution, and why the old and the modern conservative Christian’s tactics for establishing their mutual goal of marrying religion with state had to be opposite (the old religionists emphasized and denounced the Constitution’s secularism; the moderns downplay or evade its significance).

The authors begin their chronicle of the Constitution’s secular roots with the religious proponents of church-state separation. Roger Williams, a prominent, ardent Puritan (born in 1603), was always concerned about maintaining “the purity of the church;”thus, he wanted to protect it from the “worldly corruption” of the state. If government became a religious or specifically Christian task, he predicted, this would generally lead to shameless pandering by politicians and an exploitation of God. The authors believe Williams would have regarded modern school-prayer proponents as those who don’t take their religious practice seriously. In the eighteenth century, Baptists in New England fought successfully for their belief that since their churches were voluntarily free from the state, (having had a history of governments treating them harshly), they should be freed of the injustice of being taxed to maintain other churches.

Jefferson and many other Founders were deist, that is, they regarded God as their Creator who endowed them with rights, but who thereafter never intervened on their thoughts or actions. Deism, as leading Objectivist Leonard Peikoff has said, is the step between Christianity and atheism.

The Founding Fathers also learned empirically about the state’s potential for tyranny. But unlike the Baptists, they learned its proper function through the works of John Locke, an Enlightenment political philosopher. Locke held that life, liberty, and property were man’s natural rights, and that the state was created to protect them by upholding a voluntaristic, individualistic society. He wrote that every man has “the supreme and absolute authority of judging for himself” and has no obligation to yield to “the admonitions or injunctions of another.” The Founders, many of whom were disciples of Locke, understood the truth of these ideas and incorporated them into their Declaration of Independence and godless Constitution.

They were committed to a strict separation of church and state, particularly Thomas Jefferson; but, the authors tell us, they didn’t want America to be godless, “only its government,” which “was not created to produce moral citizens.” Jefferson believed fervently in religion’s importance as the foundation of morality but “he did not confuse the work of government with the work of churches and private citizens.” He believed religious faith was “a purely private concern.”

Deist, Infidel, “opposer of Christianity”, Atheist, and Devil are among the names Jefferson was called by his adversaries — most of them being conservative Christians. (A Reverend had warned that electing Jefferson as president would “destroy religion, introduce immorality and loosen all the bands of society.”) Jefferson and other Founders were deists; that is, they regarded God as their Creator who endowed them with rights, but who thereafter never intervened on their thoughts or actions. Deism, therefore, is the step between Christianity and atheism.

While conservatives want to control men’s intellect by forcing them to obey and execute God’s truths, which are whatever conservatives arbitrarily choose them to be … the liberals generally want to control men economically by converting the Crucifix’s moral symbolism — sacrificing the ideal, virtuous man to lesser men — into social policy, e.g., welfare statism.

Kramnick and Moore note an issue that was highly controversial when the Constitution was drafted: the conservative Christians’ proposal that seekers of government office be required to take a religious test as a qualification for their jobs. But enacted instead of this proposal was the no-religious test clause of Article VI. Outraged over God and Christianity’s absence in government, the conservatives and their successors tried to establish religion, not only in certain aspects of the government (“God” was printed on U.S. currency in 1863 and was included in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954; in 1912, government stopped mail delivery on Sundays), but also in the Constitution itself, via a crusade to enact a Christian Amendment, which began during the Civil War and ended as a fruitless effort in the 1950’s.

All these relevant facts — as well as that the Founders generally “did not believe that Christianity was the only source of sound morals,” and that when politics and government were discussed they showed far more mastery of authors of pagan Greece and Rome than of the biblical texts — are that which modern religionists of the Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell-ilk (all of whom the authors examine in Chapter 8) either downplay or drop from their historical accounts.

Kramnick and Moore only briefly discuss the important but often overlooked fact of how liberals, though less explicitly religious than conservatives, also marry religion with state. While conservatives generally want to control the individual’s mind by having the state force him to obey God’s alleged moral truths, such as with censoring certain books, movies, art; the liberals generally want to control the individual’s property by having the state force him to accept the Crucifix’s moral symbolism (i.e., sacrificing the ideal man to less virtuous men), such as with welfare-statism — which forces the producers to sacrifice their property to lesser producers or parasites. At their philosophic root, liberals are the conservatives’ brethren. They both morally demand that individuals sacrifice for others, be it God or “society.” The Founders, however, despite their religious elements, established a Constitutional Republic that fundamentally rests on ideas that protect each individual’s right to live by his own chosen morality, provided he refrains from “injuring another in his person or property.” The individual’s right to his life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness have nevertheless eroded piecemeal throughout this century, due to both the conservatives and the liberal’s legislation that forces their particular religious values on Americans; which thereby instituted a democracy, i.e., the sacrifice of individual rights by majority vote, i.e., mob rule.

The Founders identified a principle that Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, made explicit: faith and force are corollaries. That is, when God’s word or any arbitrary claim taken on faith is upheld as the morality on which government and its laws are based, then all individuals, particularly independent, questioning ones, must either obey the state’s dictates or face its physical force. If government legislated Christianity, James Madison warned, the evils from which Americans fled Europe would return: ignorance, superstition, servility, bigotry, persecution.

The Founders implicity grasped a principle that Ayn Rand made explicit: faith and force are corollaries.

Knowing that freedom requires of individuals the use of their rational faculty to live, Thomas Jefferson swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” This famous statement, we discover, was aimed primarily at priests, whom Jefferson believed had perverted Christianity “into an engine for enslaving mankind, a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves.” In his Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote, “It is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobility.” Since reason is man’s only means to knowledge, the individual has a right to be left free to think, judge and act peacefully within the knowledge he acquires. Reason and freedom, therefore, are corollaries.

Thus, it was Jefferson’s “strident Enlightenment rationalism, his constant juxtaposition of reason and superstition, free inquiring and religious coercion,” his “scientific and intellectual inclinations” which helped establish the principles of intellectual and economic laissez faire that are necessary for individuals to potentially achieve wealth, health and happiness on earth, and which made him seem “so dangerous a threat to his Christian enemies.” Equally threatened by the Founder’s deism are modern conservative Christians. But unlike their predecessors, they make little or no mention of the Founder’s stress on reason over faith, nor of the secular essence of their Constitution. As Kramnick and Moore keenly demonstrate:

In a staggering historical flip-flop, it [the Christian right] now celebrates the Constitution by denying its godless foundation, which so many religious leaders in the past clearly recognized and lamented. Having lost many times in its effort to put God and Christ into the persistently vilified godless Constitution and an atheistic national government, the Christian right today embraces the Constitution and its authors, rewriting history as it does so. Its adherents have falsely dressed the founders of American government and the Constitution in godly Christian garb, which they argue, later godless generations have systematically torn off. America today will suffer God’s wrath, we are now told, unless it returns to its founders’ abiding vision of a Christian American politics. Such is the vast distortion of American history offered by today’s preachers of religious correctness.

Kramnick and Moore regrettably make brief lapses which reveal their moral and philosophic ambiguity, as when they honor compassion, mercy, sacrifice as prominent values, while they undermine the very values that the U.S. Constitution implicitly and explicitly upholds: self-interest and money, i.e., property (the medium individuals could make, inherit and keep by right); and when they write, “We would be foolish to suggest that there is a fully consistent way to implement the position we defend.” These lapses , however, detract little from their ultimate achievement.

And where the Founders stopped, Ayn Rand, who called the Founders America’s first and last intellectuals, developed their ideas and finally integrated them into a fully consistent philosophy.

Jefferson faulted Locke, Kramnic and Moore tell us, for extending religious freedom to Protestant dissenters but not to Catholics. “Where he stopped,” Jefferson wrote, “we may go on.” And where the Founders stopped, Ayn Rand, who called those men America’s first and last intellectuals, developed their ideas and finally integrated them into a consistent philosophy. The authors’ position would have benefited greatly from her philosophy of Objectivism, which proves how man’s rights are not, as the Founders believed, God-given and self-evident, but that which are inherent in man by his rational nature and objectively demonstrable. She agreed with the Founders that religion and state must be separate and that people have a right to worship privately; otherwise she staunchly opposed religion; proving how faith in and sacrifice to God, its essence, are incompatible with reason and therefore destructive to man’s life.

Ayn Rand held that the new intellectuals have to continue the Founders’ basic political line by reminding the world that man has a right to his own life, liberty, and happiness. Kramnic and Moore ultimately achieve this in Godless Constitution.

Order: The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. To read more of Mr. Kellard's commentary, visit his website The American Individualist at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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