Christ in the Constitution : contesting amendment proposals and religious liberty in the United States, 1863-1975

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2018-06-14

Authors

Batlan, Katharine M.

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Abstract

The US Constitution is godless, but not everyone found that satisfactory. This dissertation follows debates between those who argued for and against adding “Jesus Christ” to the US Constitution from 1863-1975. A small group of Protestants worked for over a century to try to add recognition of Jesus Christ to the US Constitution. In their view, the legitimacy of government power derives from God, not the citizens. Further, even making gestures to the deist’s generic “creator God” would be insufficient since it might be misconstrued to mean the God of other religions. Therefore, they wanted to include a specific reference to Jesus Christ. For this dissertation, I used extensive sources from archives around the United States, including Congressional records from the National Archives, Christian Amendment Movement and National Reform Association materials housed at the Reformed Presbyterian Archives, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary Library, the Synagogue Council of America’s records at the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History. I also consulted documents from the University of Notre Dame Archives, Seventh-day Adventist archives, Seventh-day Adventist meeting minutes in which their reasoning for their position was explained. Periodicals that covered Seventh-day Adventist and atheist opposition to religious amendments provided additional insight. Whether the United States was a Christian nation at any point in its history, and whether it should be today are significant questions in American public life. Politicians base their careers on it. Historians make claims about it. And Americans always seem to voice opinions about it. Christian amendment advocates frequently said the United States was not officially a Christian nation, but should be. Allies they attracted had varying perspectives. And varied opponents of a Christian amendment often agreed that the United States was not a Christian nation—though they thought it should remain neutral. This dissertation provides historical depth to the ongoing public debate over the religious character of the United States, particularly in relation to its fundamental political document, the Constitution. Christian amendment attempts were made from the 1860s to the 1970s. The arguments of the past look quite similar to arguments among religious, non-religious, and government groups that continue today. In light of “Christian nation” rhetoric in contemporary politics, these questions are as salient as they were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For most of the founders and most disputants between the 1860s and the 1970s, laws or amendments with too much theological specificity and broad implications for implementation proved problematic to the American federal system. I argue that a Christian amendment failed because it was too specific to pass. It arguably excluded citizens that the Constitution already enfranchised and protected. Instead, most Americans, I show, were comfortable with theologically broad religious language. The Confederacy placed “Almighty God” at the beginning of their constitution. US presidents called fast days for public prayer and in times of turmoil. “God” made it onto those coins and into the pledge. But even though the majority of citizens identified as Christian during this period, the men (and some women) who expressed a view or had political clout accepted the hard-won compromises of the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution. Jesus Christ was never added to the US Constitution, despite concerted efforts by some citizens to do so. Additionally, these legally unsuccessful but culturally significant amendment attempts drew a broad spectrum of interested parties to the discussion, including both legal experts and those who were not. Analyzing these disputes not only provides nuance to our understanding of the legal discussion but also uncovers the diverse religious views of a wide range of ordinary Americans. For the purposes of this dissertation, legal experts are defined as those judges who did the work of determining religious liberty’s meaning for the nation. Both experts and non-experts debated the meaning of religious liberty, even though only the legal experts had the power to set major legal standards. Rather than employing legal professionals’ definitions, as most studies on religion and law do, this dissertation will show that expert ideas were not always reflected in how non-experts expressed themselves. Both sets of views have a history and should be added to the story. These views did not appear out of nowhere. These questions related to the religious character of the United States remain salient in scholarship and contemporary life even though amendment attempts ended in 1975.

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