It’s one of the most often utilized arguments by secularists when making the case that the Constitution is a secular document and that the nation’s Founders, in thirteen short years, went from affirming the central role of the Creator in informing the relations of man and government to a complete abandonment of God. As the argument goes, so dismissive were the Framers of religion’s role in governance that the even the Oath was given an elective role in the swearing of a public servant’s allegiance to the United States and the Constitution; a role that was equal in standing to the godless affirmation.
In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two major reasons for the Constitution’s apparently secular tone. First, it was a working document designed to serve as a blueprint for government. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, it did not have an aspirational or declaratory purpose, nor did it need to explain itself “to a candid world.”
Second, the Constitution had to specifically avoid, as much as it could, any references to religion because, as discussed by countless sources of the time and memorialized in the subsequent First Amendment to the Constitution, religion was to remain within the purview of the states, not under the auspices of the new national government. This is also why the Framers prohibited any religious test from being employed to determine the qualifications of any of its members.
Even so, deference to God is still encountered within the Constitution of the United States in at least two locations. First, the Constitution specifically references God in acknowledging that the date of attestation took place “in the year of our Lord.” Second, the Constitution skips Sunday in the number of days allowed for the President to return a bill passed by Congress. There is no coincidence that this day was skipped because it was one of rest and worship amongst Christians.
Secularists foolishly argue that notwithstanding those two references, the placement of the affirmation as an alternative to an oath clearly demonstrates the Framers’ secularist intent and their secularist design for their new nation. That assertion is wrong.
In Article II, the Framers required an incoming President to take an “Oath or Affirmation.” Additionally, in Article VI, the Framers wrote, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution.”
The importance of this requirement is striking when one considers that an “oath” is often defined as “a solemn promise”[i]with the words “calling on God” as witness included in many definitions.[ii] It is viewed as an appeal to God to witness the veracity or solemnity of the words or actions about to be taken.[iii] No greater act of contrition, or of subservience to God, can be required of one about to undertake an action than to require the person to make the statement under the direct appeal to God. The oath requirement within the Constitution of the United States is a preeminent acknowledgment of the existence of God and of the subservience of every American elected official to Him.
However, what about the affirmation?
In point of fact, the affirmation was designed to accommodate those with an ostensibly greater subservience to God; not to secularists. According to Professor Steve Sheppard, a law professor at the University of Arkansas, in including the affirmation as an option, the Framers were attempting to appease the faith requirements of Quakers and those like them, whose fears of God was so great that they were prohibited from undertaking an oath.[iv] Consequently, the affirmation inscribed within the Constitution was far from Godless, as some would like to argue today. It was merely an option to be exercised by those whose fear and respect for God was so great that they could not bring themselves to invoke His name in an oath, but would nevertheless place themselves under the threat of perjury when making their declaration.
It stands as indisputable that the Constitution is a document divinely inspired. Man could not arrive at such a solemn document, albeit with its many imperfections, without some guidance from God. However that modern-day secularists should use a capitulation made in honor of the most pious as an affirmation of the document’s secularity, is as ironic as it is false.
[i] American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Ed. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company).
[iii] West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2nd ed.. (The Gale Group, Inc.: 2008),
[iv] Steve Sheppard, “What Oaths Meant to the Framers’ Generation: A Preliminary Sketch,” Cardozo Law Review,de Novo 27, (2009): 279.