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How Judeo-Christian is the US Constitution?

There's evidence the Founding Fathers did their best to keep religion out of it almost entirely.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(RNS) — “We believe the Constitution, through our Founding Fathers, had a Judeo-Christian value system, and that’s what made our country great,” declared the man who introduced Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, at a church in Mercersburg a couple of weeks ago.

Mastriano, you’ll recall, is the retired Army colonel, state senator and fervent evangelical Christian who marched to the U.S. Capitol to “Stop the Steal” on Jan. 6, 2021. In this, you might say, he’s all about “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

But as someone who’s been tracking Judeo-Christian language in American politics for 30 years, I feel honor-bound to determine what Pennsylvanians backing Mastriano consider to be Judeo-Christian about the Constitution.

The obvious place where the Constitution went along with a Judeo-Christian value system was in the matter of slavery, which both Old and New Testament accept as a normal feature of the social order. Until the 13th Amendment did away with it in 1865, slavery was also accepted in Article I, Section 2, which counted an enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person for purposes of taxation and congressional representation.

But I don’t think that’s what Pennsylvanians for Mastriano have in mind. More likely, it’s what Rick Crump, a Christian branding expert and community organizer, told a rally for Mastriano back in April: “The Constitution prevents the government from imposing on the church. It doesn’t say anything about religion imposing itself on the state.” 

Actually, it does say something about that. In the only part of the Constitution proper that actually concerns religion (i.e., before we get to the amendments), Article VI declares that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

In other words, the Founding Fathers decided to prevent religion from imposing itself on the state in the way that English law at the time kept Catholics and nonconformists from serving in public office. To be sure, there was at least one Founding Father who didn’t much care for this provision.

Luther Martin, a delegate from Maryland, reported back to his state Legislature that while the provision had been adopted “by a great majority of the convention, and without much debate,” there were “some members so unfashionable; as to think that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a christian country it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.”

The founders’ prevailing sentiment against holding out such a distinction was put most succinctly by George Washington in his 1790 letter to the Jewish community Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

The ancient Israelites (the Judeo- part of Judeo-Christian) had little idea of this nonreligious approach. They conceived of their polity as entirely ordained by God, according to the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. That’s why the Israelite general and historian Josephus coined the term “theocracy” to describe his people’s system of government.

The Constitution, on the other hand, seems almost to go out of its way to keep the Deity out of the picture. It makes no such reference as Thomas Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence to “Nature’s God” or the “Creator” of humankind. (Asked why the customary invocation of God was not included in the Constitution’s Preamble, Alexander Hamilton reportedly replied, “We forgot it.”)

The presidential oath of office — the only oath the Constitution spells out — even omits the customary “so help me God.” (The phrase was included in the oaths for other federal officers specified in the 1789 Judiciary Act, authored by the pious Connecticut Congregationalist Oliver Ellsworth.)

As for the Christian half of Judeo-Christian, we might view the Constitution as hearkening to the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus gives some Pharisees their comeuppance by saying, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

On this reading of a Judeo-Christian value system, the Constitution would be one of Caesar’s things. No doubt that’s not what Pennsylvanians for Mastriano have in mind either, but there’s something to be said for it.