Save Our ConstitutionRobert Sandler November/December 2005
Since the presidential election of 2000 there have been many more controversial issues and cases around the country that have, in one way or another, involved either the Supreme Court or the Constitution of the United States.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is, however, that many people in our country do not really know very much about the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the workings of the Supreme Court.
I suspect that tens of thousands, if not millions, of American citizens would consider it to be a very good idea if high school and college students were required to take courses in the Constitution of the United States and the Supreme Court. And many adults, as well, could benefit from courses in the Constitution and the Supreme Court.
For example, the issue of the separation of church and state has become, in recent years, a very controversial issue. This in spite of the fact that in the Con_stitution and the Bill of Rights the issue of separation of church and state is very clearly stated several times. In recent years, however, some people, including highly placed members of the government, have blatantly violated the Constitution on this issue, as if it didn't even exist! The Supreme Court has banned some separation of church and state violations here and there, but even the Supreme Court appears to be reluctant to make a clear national ruling that will uphold the clearly intended words of the writers of the Constitution—a Constitution that the present sitting justices swore to uphold.
From the time the United States Consti-tution was written, in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, to the present time, there have been two attempts to add explicit wording to it that would ify the words of the writers of the Constitution with regard to religious matters.
During the long hot summer of 1787, when the delegates were working painstakingly to write the Constitution, a group of religious people asked the president of the convention if they could express their views to the delegates. The elected president of the Constitutional Convention was a man named George Washington. He agreed to hear the clergy, and he presented their appeal to the delegates. The appeal of the religious group was that an "explicit acknowledgment of the only true God and Jesus Christ be included in the Constitution." After deliberation the delegates denied the request.
Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 had written the Declaration of Independence, was in France at the time the Constitution was written. He knew most of the delegates. Upon his return he made it a point to contact as many delegates as he could. He had, of course, met and worked with most of them before. Thomas Jefferson, a fine writer, had been keeping a journal of these important days, and he was interested in writing about the appeal of the religious group. He wrote the following description of the delegates' response to the clergy: "The insertion [the only true God . . . Jesus Christ, etc.] was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they [the delegates] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its [the Constitution's] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." Those are the words that the writers of our Constitution gave to Thomas Jefferson for his journal (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. I, p. 45).
Much later, on February 18, 1874, another group of clergy appealed to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to add to the Constitution the words that had been requested by the religious group in 1787.
The reply to the clergy was as follows: "As this country [the U.S.A.], the foundation of whose government they were then laying, was to be the home of the oppressed of all nations of the earth, whether Christian or pagan, and in full realization of the dangers which the union between church and state has imposed upon so many nations of the Old World, with great unanimity, they agreed that it was inexpedient to put anything in the Constitution or frame of government which might be construed to be a reference to any religious creed or doctrine." (The report that the House Judiciary Committee gave to the clergy, rejecting their appeal, is available from the Library of Congress, U.S. House Reports, 43rd Congress, No. 143, Washington, D.C.)
Is it not crystal clear that the writers of the United States Constitution intended to create a nation of people of different races and religions? Is it not clear as can be that the writers of the Constitution did not intend to create an exclusive Christian nation?
With regard to the separation of church and state, we know that many of the writers of the Constitution had heard their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles tell stories about how people who did not adhere to the Anglican Church of England, to the letter, were persecuted, jailed, and physically injured. Many writers of the Constitution had read books about the long and bloody religious wars in England, in France, in Germany, and all over Europe for centuries: some against other countries—some within their own countries—all at a time when religion and government were "one."
The writers of our Constitution bravely established the concept of separation of church and state. People are free to espouse any religion or no religion in the United States: in their homes, in their churches, in their schools, etc. When people entangle their religion with the government, however, a divisive situation is created. And indeed, our country at the present time is clearly more divided on the topic of religion than at any other time that people can remember.
Robert Sandler is professor emeritus of history, University of Miami. He writes from Miami, Florida.