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God and the Constitution: The under-remembered controversy of 1787-88

In "The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness" (W.W. Norton, 1996, 1997, 2005) Cornell Professors Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore take a polemical stance in their treatise on the origins and framing of the document we are celebrating Sept. 17, Constitution Day. The authors remind readers of the important historical and political reasons why the word "God" is conspicuously absent from the Constitution. While Thomas Jefferson invoked a "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, and the later Articles of Confederation mention "the great Governor of the World," no such language adorns the Constitution. Despite vigorous opposition, the framers were intent on the separation of church and state, and though many were of a religious persuasion, they recognized, especially through Article Six, the dangers of policy-makers who use religion to advance their agendas or lay claim to divine guidance in their decision making. The following is an excerpt from the book:

"... The U.S. Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, is a godless document. Its utter neglect of religion was no oversight; it was apparent to all. Self-consciously designed to be an instrument with which to structure the secular politics of individual interest and happiness, the Constitution was bitterly attacked for its failure to mention God or Christianity. Our history books usually describe in great detail the major arguments made against the federal Constitution by its Anti-Federalist opponents: it meant death to the states and introduced an elitist Senate and a monarchical presidency. [History texts] seldom mention, however, the concerted campaign to discredit the Constitution as irreligious, which for many of its opponents was its principal flaw. It is as if recognizing the dimension of this criticism would draw too much attention to what was being attacked -- the secularism of the Constitution. In fact, this undocumented and under-remembered controversy of 1787-88 over the godless Constitution was one of the most important public debates ever held in America over the place of religion in politics. The advocates of a secular state won, and it is their Constitution we revere today."

Kramnick is the R.J. Schwartz Professor of Government; Moore is the H.A. Newman Professor of American Studies and professor of history.

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