The first fights over secular government in America

How did the original members of the Constitutional Convention react to the fact that the United States government was going to be explicitly secular—with no established state religion, no religious test for citizenship or public office, and, in fact, no mention of God in the document at all? I've often wondered about this. I know a little about the perspective of the founding fathers who successfully pushed for secularism, but what about the ones who disagreed?

Slacktivist—one of my favorite bloggers on ethics, Christian theology, politics and history—has been reading a book that describes the knock-down, drag-out fight that led to our secular Constitution. Amusingly, the rhetoric of the losing side is oddly familiar …

Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state's ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. Amos Singletary, another delegate to the Massachusetts ratification convention, was upset at the Constitution's not requiring men in power to be religious "and though he hoped to see Christians [in office], yet by the Constitution, a papist, or an infidel was as eligible as they." In New Hampshire the fear was of "a papist, a Mohomatan, a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government." Henry Abbot, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, warned that "the exclusion of religious tests" was "dangerous and impolitic" and that "pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us." If there is no religious test, he asked, "to whom will they [officeholders] swear support — the ancient pagan gods of Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto?"

More specific fears were clearly at work here. The absence of religious tests, it was feared, would open up the national government to control by Jews, Catholics and Quakers. The Rev. David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister and delegate in North Carolina, worried that the Constitution now offered an invitation to "Jews and pagans of every kind" to govern us. Major Thomas Lusk, a delegate in Massachusetts, denounced Article 6 of the Constitution and shuddered "at the idea that Roman Catholics, Papists and Pagans might be introduced into office, and that Popery and the Inquisition may be established in America." A delegate in North Carolina waved a pamphlet that depicted the possibility that the pope of Rome might be elected president.

There's more, but you get the idea. If you aren't familiar with Slacktivist, it's worth noting that he's an evangelical Baptist, and this post is part of a longer argument he's made for secularism being good for both government and for religion, itself.

Slacktivist: Reading the Godless Constitution