For many American Christians, love of God and love of country go hand-in-hand. To these believers, patriotism and upholding the US Constitution have functionally become tenets of faith. This particular expression of American Christianity often concedes with conservative values and a sincere desire to see America embrace its heritage as a Christian nation.
This notion that America is a Christian nation is increasingly being challenged. After all, the Constitution affords religious freedom to all people, not just Christians. But is God mentioned in the Constitution?
God is not mentioned in the US Constitution. Though there are certain broad religious principles stated in other founding documents, the Constitution has little to say about religious practice and influence in America.
God and the Founding Fathers
It is widely recognized that religious persecution is one of several reasons that European colonists fled to what is now the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries. This desire to worship God in traditions other than the “official” manner of the Church of England appealed to a broad spectrum of faithful Christians.
As European presence in North America became more established, the continent became a diverse array of different denominations and practices. Anabaptists, Methodists, and Catholics, all enjoyed the freedom to flourish in their respective traditions.
The American continent also became increasingly appealing to less religious enlightenment thinkers who, while professing a belief in God, did not strictly believe in Jehovah as He is revealed in scripture.
These thinkers are best described as deists who believed God to be a distant being who was no longer concerned with the day-to-day operation of His creation. Two of the most prominent deists among the founders of the United States were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
The Deist Influence
By the time of the American Revolution, economic freedom and personal autonomy were the pressing issues that prompted the colonies to assert their independence. Yet, the effort was widely—but not universally—supported by Christians of varying denominations alongside secular deists.
Christians, in particular, had no desire to return to the corrupting influence of the crown over the church. Similarly, deists foresaw the dangers of a theocratic government both to the autonomy of individuals and to the free expression of the church.
For these reasons, the founding documents of the United States are carefully worded to allow for the maximum freedom of expression for all believers. But before we examine the Constitution, let’s take a step back to the document that sparked the revolution in the first place.
The Declaration of Independence
Americans celebrate the 1776 issuance of the Declaration of Independence—not the signing of the Treaty of Paris or the ratification of the Constitution—as the birth of our nation.
As many Americans know, the Declaration begins with an acknowledgment of the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The fundamental premise of this statement is that it declares to the king of England that all people are endowed with rights by an authority that is both separate from and higher than the British crown.
Throughout the document, references to “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge,” and similar divine terms are used to advance the cause of American independence.
Who Is God in the Declaration of Independence?
A Christian—regardless of denomination or tradition—who reads the Declaration of Independence will be more than satisfied that the founders appeal to God as we know Him. After all, each of these terms accurately describes some aspect of the God of the Bible.
The trouble is, none of these terms explicitly specify the God of the Bible, either. The Declaration does not make reference to Jehovah, Yahweh, or any of the specific persons of the Trinity.
This broad language is meant to appeal both to the religious adherents to Biblical Christianity and to areligious deists who subscribe to a divine creator but not to a divine interceder.
The Declaration of Independence is an attestation of the belief that people exist because we were created to exist and more specifically, that the residents of the American continent are determined to live out that existence apart from British influence.
The Constitution, ratified in 1787, moves beyond the question of why we exist to how we function. The deist influence is seen even more prominently in this document through the absence of any mention of God.
As deism proposes that God does not intervene in human affairs, the founders deliberately left God out of the nation’s operating manual. Still, there are two notable texts where the Constitution speaks to religious practices.
The first is in Article VI, which states “no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This clause is designed to ensure that no single religious tradition would exert undue influence over the government, similar to the intertwining of the British crown and the Church of England.
The second, and better-known mention is in the First Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, and reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause acts as a counterweight to the clause in Article VI by preventing undue influence over the churches by the government.
What about the Date?
A small minority of patriotic Christians insist that God is mentioned in the Constitution because it is dated “In the Year of Our Lord” 1787. The argument follows that this wording not only references God but specifically attests to Jesus, from whose birth the date was measured.
The trouble with this argument is that it ignores the reality that the Gregorian calendar, complete with its dating system and naming conventions, was in use throughout Europe and the European colonies in America. The founders dated the Constitution in this manner because all legal documents of their era were dated in this manner.
The Importance to Christians
For American Christians, it might be disillusioning to consider that our founders were not as Christian as we may have thought. So we ought to examine where our politics and our faith intersect and search the scriptures at every turn. As we do so, we ought to prayerfully consider if our politics or our patriotism have unduly influenced our understanding of the Bible as we seek to live our faith first.
We are citizens of God’s eternal kingdom. America is temporal, and our time here lasts only for this life. Even as we express love for our country and the people residing here, our love for America must always be subservient to our love for God. To God alone belongs the allegiance of our hearts. But in order to properly love and serve Him, we must strive to truly know Him.
Who Is God in Scripture?
Our national heritage and history are filled with mentions of God:
- Endowed by [our] Creator with certain inalienable rights (Declaration of Independence)
- One nation, under God (Pledge of Allegiance)
- In God We Trust (The national motto inscribed on all US coins and currency)
But we must not read into these statements an assumption that they are an appeal to the Father, Son, and Spirit that are revealed to us in scripture.
Paul encountered a very similar phenomenon in Athens:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.Acts 17:22-23
Like Paul, we have an opportunity with the people that we meet to make the unknown known. We have a chance to show that God is close, that He is real, and that He is involved in every way in the lives of His people and His care for creation.
We do this not by appealing to the words of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, or any other secular document.
Rather, we know God through scripture, and we testify to Him through our lives and our witness.