References to Religion in the Federal Constitution of 1787
Identifying references to religion in the Constitution can be a controversial issue. The concept of “religion” was, in the eighteenth century, a complex one. Sometimes the word referred specifically to church institutions and their personnel, other times it could be used more generally, to refer to the area of life that dealt with the divine. The more limited idea of institutions was usually applied only to Christians, while the latter could be applied to different cultures. Because the two different ideas both circulated, it can be difficult to determine which, or what combination of the two, a particular writer or speaker referred to.
At times, as in Article VI’s statement forbidding religious tests for holding office, it was meant as a general category. Based on that article, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews were as eligible to hold federal office as their Protestant counterparts. In other ways, the religion that is implied appears to mean Christianity, as when the Constitution is dated in the “Year of our Lord.” This tension, between “religion” as part of life that exists in many cultures and “religion” as the Protestant Christianity shared by most of the citizens of the new United States, persists in legal controversies over religion and government in the present day.
Specific Phrases relating to religion in the text of the Constitution are highlighted blow in bold, blue text. Explanations of those passages are given below in blue italics.
Article I, Section 7:
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively. If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.
Every Order, Resolution, or Vote to which the Concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of Adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.
The exception for Sunday in this line reflects the widespread cultural practice of resting on Sunday, a tradition derived from the strong majority of Christians among the colonies’ and United States’ Euro-American residents.
Article II, Section 1, final paragraph:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
An Oath was a standard way to begin a formal action, such as governmental service. Oaths were also used during the Revolutionary era to demand evidence of the loyalty of citizens to the patriot cause. Some Protestant groups, the Quakers in particular, refused to swear oaths on religious grounds. Under some colonial governments, the requirement to swear an oath prevented members of those groups from full participation in civil life and politics, even subjecting them to special fines. The inclusion of “or Affirmation” in this article guaranteed that the oath would not be used to keep those who would not swear oaths on religious grounds out of office.
All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Religious tests were designed to ensure that only members of certain religious groups could hold office and they had been common in the colonial period. Proponents believed that without specific religious views, individuals were not fit for the public trust. In early Massachusetts, a man had to be a full communicant in the Congregational Church to vote or hold office. During much of the colonial era, Catholics and Jews were excluded from office holding by a variety of statutes. New constitutions written by the states after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War often continued earlier tests. New Jersey, for example, limited officeholding in its 1776 constitution to those “professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect.” Maryland required an oath of loyalty to the state and a belief in the “Christian religion.” Only New York and Virginia, in their new constitutions, declined to place religious limitations on office holding. The ban on religious tests in the Federal Constitution of 1787 was proposed and supported by Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina. It passed with limited opposition, which arose both from those who felt it was unnecessary and those who supported religious tests. In the ratification process, proponents of the Constitution stressed that the ban on religious tests ensured and advanced religious liberty. Opponents of the Constitution argued that the ban on religious tests was evidence of the Constitution’s larger failure to safeguard religion in society, which many viewed as essential for moral order. In the years after the Constitution’s passage, states gradually dropped their religious tests for officeholding, and the clause in the adopted Constitution ensured that no federal officeholding could never be limited to a single religious group. More information about religious tests for office holding and voting in revolutionary era state Constitutions can be found here.
done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names…
There is substantial evidence that this formulation for the date was not in the version of the Constitution that was ratified in the Constitutional Convention. There is no record of delegates discussing its absence, or objecting to it. Most likely, the Constitution’s copyist added it as he finished “engrossing” it, or writing the formal document. It would not have been an unusual way to write a date on a legal document, and the lack of discussion of the matter suggests that the delegates did not consider its absence in the first version or its presence in the final version to be significant.