US Constitution and First Amendment

The United States Federal Constitution, written by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, ratified over the following months, and the basis of the nation’s government since 1789, is undoubtedly one of the most significant documents in human history.   Its influence on the growth and development of the United States is unequivocal. It should be remembered, however, that the Constitution as originally drafted lacked any guarantees of individual freedoms, and that lack proved controversial as the various states discussed and ultimately ratified the document. As a result of that process, James Madison (considered by many the Constitution’s principal architect) proposed to Congress a slate of amendments for adoption during the Congress’s first session. Congress ultimately adopted ten amendments to the original Constitution, which are now known as the Bill of Rights. The two documents, the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights, are generally grouped together as founding documents, though they were composed, debated, and adopted by different groups of leaders and several years apart.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 focused their primary attention on the question of how to represent the various states in one central government and how to elect representatives to a central legislature fairly. Should states with larger populations get more representation? If so, should slaves be counted as part of the population, despite the fact that no state gave the enslaved political rights? Compromising on these complicated issues was a delicate matter, and it is a testament to the delegates’ profound commitment to a central government that they arrived at a solution. The Constitution created a system in which representation in the lower house was allocated by population and representation in the upper house was shared equally by all the states. In this way, smaller states had equality with the larger in the upper house, but all citizens of the United States would have an equal voice in the lower. Slaves counted for three-fifths of a person, and in that matter the delegates preserved a calculation they had inherited from the Articles of Confederation government.

Religion is mentioned directly once in the Constitution and then again in the first amendment. In addition, there are a few vague references to the new nation’s Christian-dominated culture.  In depth discussions of those important moments appear in this section. The references in the Constitution provide evidence that the document’s framers did not believe religion should serve as a limit on political participation and that their practical experience with government had been in places with a strong Christian presence.  The evidence from the drafting of the First Amendment is even more complex, as delegates grappled with how to phrase the freedom they wanted to guarantee.

Equally important to understanding the role of religion in the nation’s founding is where it did not appear, however.  The problem that most enduringly troubles Americans in the twenty-first century is the enslavement of African Americans during the first two and a half centuries of colonial and US history.  The Constitution’s framers, writing in the middle of that period, did not use religious arguments for or against the manifestations of slavery in the Constitution, most notably the three-fifths clause.  Though the late eighteenth century was a moment when many voices — of the enslaved, from religious communities, and from philosophical and political traditions — were protesting slavery, the framers did not use religion in their discussions of slavery.

Because the Constitution contains so few explicit references to religion or Christianity, and the delegates left us with no clear contemporaneous understanding of how their own diverse beliefs influenced either the wording of the Constitution or their political choices. This lack of evidence has led to centuries of vibrant discussion among Americans.  Some believe that the Constitution resonates with Biblical themes. Some believe the delegates at the Convention – most of whom were raised in colonies with established Protestant churches – meant to build a Christian nation. Some believe the delegates consciously chose to create a state in which religious institutions would play little or no role. Because these questions became controversial soon after the adoption of the Constitution, they too are part of the nation’s founding.