Religion for Thee, Not for Me: What Secularists Need to Understand about America’s Framers Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

“The Constitution, which contains no reference to God, is a purely secular document,” wrote historian Eric Foner in his book The Story of American Freedom (1998).     [1] In his book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (2019), Andrew Seidel expands on Foner’s point, demonstrating that the Constitution’s Framers consciously rejected biblical values in their personal lives, wrote a Constitution separating church and state, and ultimately did not create a “Christian nation.”

However, Seidel also points out that the Framers thought the new nation needed religion to foster morality among the lower classes.  According to Seidel, the Framers were elitists, ignorant of “the data we possess today.” From evidence collected by Phil Zuckerman and other sociologists, we now know that religion is not necessary for a moral society and that religious societies tend to act less morally than nonreligious societies.

But at the time, the Framers had plenty of evidence to support the view of religion as a prerequisite for morality. The Framers viewed religion as fundamental to “liberty,” which they defined very differently than we do today. For them, “liberty” meant the freedom to own, and dispose of, property without any encumbrance or threat. Among other moral values, religion most importantly taught common people not to impinge on that freedom, on the wealthy’s “natural right” to own property. In other words, to the Framers, religion was an important cultural force to keep the unruly, struggling masses in check. This can be seen if we examine the Framers’ motives for writing the Constitution in the first place. Secularists should understand those motives and the nature of the U.S. Constitution. First, secularists should not conflate the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, on which Seidel’s book focuses. Understandably, Seidel calls the Declaration “one of our founding documents” and thoroughly analyzes its democratic concepts. But the Declaration was written in a totally different context, states a completely different (much more radical) theory of government than the Constitution and, most importantly, is not the law of the land today. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration and thirty-nine signed the Constitution, but only six signed both. Among the seven Framers of the Constitution, only three had signed the Declaration. One, John Jay, refused to sign. To fully understand the Framers’ attitude toward religion, we must therefore look beyond the Declaration of Independence to the history, political philosophy, and nature of the Constitution itself.[2]

Most textbooks mention that Shays’ Rebellion (1786) helped precipitate the Constitutional Convention of 1787. This rebellion of debtor farmers reflected the reality that after the British surrendered in 1783, most of America’s agrarian population (in the words of Michael Parenti) “consisted of poor freeholders, tenants, and indentured hands (the latter lived in conditions of servitude). Small farmers were burdened by heavy rents, ruinous taxes and low incomes.”[3] Most were deeply in debt. In Massachusetts, when debtors’ courts began seizing property in 1786, thousands of free White farmers began to close down courts and threaten judges who could order their property seized due to unpaid debts and taxes. To protect their property, these farmers (in the words of historian Ray Raphael) “declared their readiness to fight the revolution all over.”[4] Because sympathetic state militiamen refused to suppress the farmers, Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin and his business associates had to hire 4,400 mercenaries to put down the 600-man rebellion.

The importance of Shays’ Rebellion cannot be overstated. William Fisher[5] has shown that in pre- and post-revolutionary America, it was universally accepted that property holders should be protected “against interference with the holdings by other private parties or the government.” In New York, laborers were angered by the greed and selfishness of local merchants but never proposed the redistribution of property. They only demanded increased suffrage and non-imprisonment for indebtedness. So when Shays’ farmers acted “upon skepticism regarding the sanctity of private property rights,” they elicited (in Fisher’s words) “horror” “among virtually all observers, including the anti-Federalists.”

But Shays’ Rebellion was only the tip of the iceberg. Raphael has documented how the Revolutionary War had ravaged most common people, whose fields and livestock had been pillaged, whose houses had been commandeered and burned, who suffered atrocities such as rape, and who suffered from various diseases. As a result, before the Constitution was written (in Parenti’s words), “Disorders of a violent but organized kind occurred in a number of states.” Raphael details the breadth of “the debtor movement,” which forced the Rhode Island legislature to issue paper money; attacked courts in New Jersey; closed courts in Maryland’s Charles County and South Carolina’s Camden County; and stopped court proceedings in Virginia’s King William, Greenbrier, and Amelia counties. In York, Pennsylvania, 200 men armed with guns and clubs took back cattle seized by the government in lieu of taxes.

Native Americans and slaves had also suffered (more than they already were) during the war. Raphael documents how “most, perceiving a brighter future for themselves if the British prevailed, opposed the American rebels.” George Washington himself lost sixteen slaves who fled to the British. John Adams wrote that the revolution “had loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians and negroes grew insolent to their masters.” Even among the colonies’ “patriots,” class tensions permeated every aspect of the war and its aftermath.

The tensions revolved around power and wealth. On the one hand were men like the Framers, who were (in Parenti’s words) “financially successful planters, merchants and creditors, many linked by kinship and marriage and by years of service in Congress, the military, or diplomatic service.” While all of them owned property giving them not only economic independence but also political independence,[6] one-third of the White male population were disenfranchised because they did not meet states’ minimum property qualification to vote. Many were the same people who, during the war, had humiliated and perhaps even killed their social superiors. They could not (in Raphael’s words) “easily re-acquire the unthinking respect for wealth and status that underpinned the old order.” Anticipating the fruits of their freedom, “no longer would mud-caked farmers feel compelled to yield the way to dandy gentlemen.”

The wealthy understood the threat. Warned Governor Morris:

The time is not distant when this Country will abound with mechanics [artisans] and manufacturers [industrial workers] who will receive their bread from their employers. Will such men be the secure and faithful Guardians of liberty? … Children do not vote. Why? Because they want prudence, because they have no will of their own. The ignorant and dependent can be as little trusted with the public interest.

Artist’s depiction of protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts. The insurrection was a
tax-related rebellion.

In 1786, Henry Knox worriedly wrote to George Washington that poor Whites felt “their own poverty compared with the opulent, and their own force” and were “determined to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former.”

Contrary to typical textbook renditions, the Framers met in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation and establish a strong central government not merely to settle disputes among states, strengthen national commerce, and foster diplomacy with other nations. Rather, according to Parenti, they needed to quell “the increasingly insurgent spirit evidenced among the people. Fearing the popular takeover of state governments, the wealthy class looked to a national government as a means of protecting their interests.” To achieve this objective, the Framers decided to ditch the Articles of Confederation and create a new government. The new government was to be, in James Madison’s words, a republic, not a democracy, because “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” To Framers like Madison, liberty meant the freedom to hold and dispose of private property without any encumbrance or interference. Protecting private property (in historian Richard Hofstadter’s words) “would result in liberty for men—perhaps not for all men, but at least for all worthy men.”[7]

A republic is very different from a democracy. In a republic, elected representatives, according to Madison, “refine and enlarge” the public views; they have no obligation to “reflect” it, i.e., to vote as people wish. To Madison, representatives are wiser, more patriotic, and have a “love of justice” that is “more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” In colonial America, these “wiser,” more patriotic citizens were the propertied upper class; in fact, in most colonies (according to Parenti), “Property qualifications for holding office were so steep as to prevent most voters from qualifying as candidates.” Like other Framers, Madison believed only “men of substance” could be trusted to make rational laws, a theory traceable to William Blackstone’s view that men without property would fall under the domination of others. “Lacking a will of their own”—here Foner paraphrases Blackstone—“their votes would threaten the general liberty.” Alexander Hamilton put it this way: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well born, the other the mass of the people. … The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”

By contrast, in a democracy, representatives—in the words of Thomas Paine—are “supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present.” In other words, Congressmen must vote as the people want. But to convention delegates such as Elbridge Gerry, democracy was “the worst of all political evils” because—as Madison wrote in Federalist X—in a democracy the majority will likely “sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” Madison, of course, was not worried about a majority suppressing the rights of slaves, Native Americans, women, or other “minorities.” He worried about the poor majority challenging the property rights of the rich. The Framers believed that (in Hofstadter’s words) “freedom to hold and dispose of property is paramount. Democracy, unchecked rule by the masses, is sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”[8]

Numerous elements of the Constitution illustrate its republican nature. Despite twenty-seven amendments, most of these elements are still with us today. Members of both houses of Congress may still vote as they please; they have no obligation to reflect the will of their districts or states. The president is still elected not by a democratic majority but by an electoral college that has no constitutional obligation to reflect the popular vote. Likewise, the president and Senate—not the public—choose justices for the U.S. Supreme Court. Moreover, unlike democrats such as Paine, who recommended that representatives be elected annually to ensure their “fidelity” to the public will, the Framers insulated Congress and the president from the public by mandating two-, four-, and six-year terms. In fact, the “final say” over the law belongs to a Supreme Court with life terms and no accountability whatsoever to the public. And good luck to any citizens who want to change this system: the amendment process—typically requiring two-thirds of Congress to propose and three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify amendments—makes changes very, very difficult.

Yes, some of the twenty-seven amendments have made the country less republican and more democratic. Property, gender, and race requirements for voting have been eliminated. Although members of the Senate were originally selected by wealthy members of state legislatures, they are now elected. But in theory and practice, the United States is still a republic as Madison defined it. The best empirical evidence: Comparing 2,000 public opinion surveys (conducted over twenty years) with policies that became laws, political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) wondered if our government’s laws—such as gun laws—reflected the people’s will. They concluded that the opinions of 90 percent of Americans have essentially no impact on lawmaking at all.

Of course, any constitution is only as good as its enforcement mechanisms. To ensure that propertied legislators had the brute force needed to quell popular uprisings,[9] the Framers gave Congress the power to tax and “raise and support Armies,” to provide and maintain a Navy, and “to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” (Note: Given the history detailed above, Justice Antonin Scalia’s view that in writing the Second Amendment, the Framers “originally intended” to give all Americans—not just the militia—the right to bear arms is, in a word, ludicrous.) The president was made commander-in-chief of the army.

But the Framers knew that past rebellions had been directed against state legislators and state judges. Shays’ Rebellion had itself succeeded in persuading the Massachusetts legislature to ease restrictions on debtors. Other state legislatures had passed measures that (in Fisher’s words) “seemed to reflect a distressing lack of concern for property rights.” So to insure against state legislators or judges too sympathetic to the unpropertied masses, the Framers added the Supremacy Clause (Article 6, para 2), which stated that the Constitution “shall be the Supreme Law of the Land, and Judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” And Madison added the Fifth Amendment (“nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation”) in hopes that it would, according to Fisher,  “stimulate popular appreciation of the dangers of expropriation.”

It should be added that the Constitution also included several provisions directly favoring the propertied class. To protect the rights of many wealthy land speculators, Congress was given sole authority over the newly opened lands in the West. Likewise, to protect merchants and money lenders, only Congress could regulate commerce among states and with foreign nations, establish a national currency and regulate its value, or establish laws regarding bankruptcies and counterfeiting. By assuming the debts accumulated during the revolution—as Hamilton advocated—the newly formed federal government bolstered “not only the special interests of speculators and creditors but also the overall interest of an emerging capitalist class,” according to Parenti. And of course, the Constitution protected the property interests of slaveholders.

What about religion? It, too, had an important role in securing property rights. To the Framers, religion did not, Thomas L. Pangle says, have “theological insight,” but “moral value,” i.e., “effectiveness in supporting peace and lawfulness.”[10] John Adams said that statesmen “may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.” George Washington famously said that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” John Jay said that “No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion.” And Seidel quotes Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that “mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women, and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes, who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice.” Seidel notes that Franklin’s “weak and ignorant” majority excluded “the educated elite, including the founders themselves, [who] achieved morality independent of religion. … They thought religion was needed for the commoners.” In other words, the educated, “already moral” Framers had no need for religion; only the uneducated and unruly masses needed it.

That commoners and not the educated needed religion may sound—as Seidel says—“elitist.” But given the uprisings in various colonies, the Framers had more than enough “evidence” to support their view that an unruly minority of Americans “needed” religion. For centuries—as Thomas Piketty in his 2019 book Capital and Ideology has shown—religion had served as an important cultural force in “civilizing” the peasantry. By 1787, at least 60 percent of the population attended church weekly in all colonies. Attending the Sabbath was often an all-day affair, with no travel, drinking, or gambling allowed. Within their communities, clergy were very influential. And while some colonial religious traditions (e.g., Puritanism) had suggested that private property should be more equally distributed, by the time of the Revolution, (in Fisher’s words), “No group of religious leaders took a stand in favor of government authority to expropriate property.” Some—such as Maryland’s Catholics—actively opposed redistribution. And of course, no colonial religious sect endorsed Shays’ Rebellion or any other attempt by citizens to violently seize private property.

I should add that by far the most important religious leader of the time, Presbyterian John Witherspoon, not only held the Calvinist view that private property was essential to the public order but rejected “pure democracy” because it was “subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.” Nor were the masses “a particularly reliable check on their leader.” As Marci Hamilton has shown,[11] Madison had attended the College of New Jersey, where Witherspoon was president “and where he [Madison] was delivered ‘a strong dose of Calvinism.’” In fact, “Some form of Calvinism played a role in the lives of at least twenty-three of the fifty-five Framers.”

Religion was only one of many cultural elements that enabled the Constitution’s ratification and the continued hegemony of the propertied class.[12] But it is instructive that in the United States, religion has historically reared its ugly head when property rights were threatened. Seidel points out that from the writing of the Constitution until the Civil War, “Religion had been largely absent from politics and government.” But when Southerners needed to justify owning slaves, then—in the words of Frederick Douglass—“revivals of religion, and revivals in the slave trade” began to “go hand in hand with each other.” Yes, as Seidel argues, Southern religion was about “otherwise moral people” trying to “assuage their consciences.” But it was equally about protecting expensive property: Black slaves. In South Carolina, presbyterian preacher James H. Thornwell unwittingly expressed “the bottom line” when he called abolitionists “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans.”

Or consider corporate America’s successful attempts to resurrect religious piety after the New Deal, attempts that Seidel delineates through Kevin M. Kruse’s book One Nation Under God (2015). As I detailed in my review of this book,[13] Kruse has shown that American capitalists never accepted government intervention in the economy, especially laws aimed at redistributing wealth and income. Historically, capitalists had been supported by the Supreme Court, but the Court finally opened the door to intervention in 1937 with its decision in West Coast v. Parrish. Interpreting that decision and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as evidence of “creeping socialism”—and ultimately threats to their property—capitalists mobilized thousands of ministers, distributed anti–New Deal literature, and successfully promoted “Christian libertarianism” to Washington’s rich and powerful. The result: prayer breakfasts, national days of prayer, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “in God we trust” on stamps and currency, monuments of the Ten Commandments on public buildings, and even the distribution of Gideon bibles in public schools! All these ways in which (in Seidel’s words) “religion invaded the halls of government” had their origin—as Kruse shows—in capitalism’s desire to protect its private property.

In the end, the United States was not exceptional. Yes, in the late eighteenth century, the United States transitioned from a locally governed ternary society to a strong central government with a Constitution designed to protect property rights. But as Thomas Piketty has documented, in most nations transitions from ternary to centrally administered governments served the interests of the propertied classes and have mostly cemented and increased inequality around the world. In the United States, our increasing inequality is grounded in history, especially in a constitution whose purpose and nature all secularists need to understand.

[1] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1998.

[2] Given the differences between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s political philosophies, Christians may challenge Seidel’s argument that the Framers did not create a Christian nation. Madison’s view that the better educated “fathers” “know best” how to write laws has a greater resemblance to Christian ideals than Jefferson’s view that governments are created to protect man’s inalienable rights and that governments may be abolished if they fail to protect those rights. However, Seidel can easily counter by pointing to the Framers’ view that political power can be abused by anyone—even the propertied—and that the Constitution checks and balances the government’s powers in a way totally inconsistent with the Bible’s grant of authority to an omnipotent god. In short, Seidel’s argument that the Framers did not create a Christian nation still holds water. It should be added that, as Eric Foner writes, “With its elaborate system of checks and balances and divided sovereignty, the Constitution was designed, in part, to enable republican government to survive the rise of economic inequality (and to render unequal concentrations of property immune from government interference).”

[3] Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.

[4] Ray Raphael, A People’s History of the American Revolution. New York, NY: New Press, 2001.

[5] William W. Fisher, “Ideology, Religion, and the Constitutional Protection of Private Property, 1760–1860.” 39 Emory Law Journal 65 (1990).

[6] According to Parenti, “By 1700, three-fourths of the acreage in New York belonged to fewer than a dozen persons. In the interior of Virginia, seven persons owned a total of 1,732,000 acres. By 1760, fewer than 500 men in five colonial cities controlled most of the commerce, banking, mining, and manufacturing on the eastern seaboard and owned much of the land.”

[7] Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York, NY: Knopf, 1948.

[8] Tom Nichols, in The Death of Expertise, defines a republic as a government “by which an informed electorate—informed being the key word here—could choose other people to represent them and to make decisions on their behalf.” He celebrates a republic because it “allows a smaller group of people to aggregate the public’s often irresolvable demands.” Apart from the obvious fact that the Framers had no intention of “aggregating” the public’s demands—Madison’s words were “refine and enlarge”—Nichols thinks that today “the death of expertise and its associated attacks on knowledge fundamentally undermine the republican system of government.” But Nichols has it backwards: the blatant corruption in our republican system of government—evident in big money’s grip on our two-party political system—has rather undermined the public’s faith in “expertise.” Who seriously believes that today’s politicians are “the wisest,” most patriotic, and justice-loving Americans, as Madison conceived? Rather, they are among the wealthiest and most well-connected citizens capable of raising the campaign funds needed to get elected. And the public knows it.

[9] Of course, the Constitutional provisions summarized in this paragraph (and the next) served other purposes beyond protecting private property. For a full account of those purposes and the debates surrounding them, see Ray Raphael, Constitutional Myths. New York, NY: New Press, 2013.

[10] Thomas L. Pangle, “Religion in the Thought of Some of the Leading American Founders,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 2012.

[11] Marci A. Hamilton, “The Framers, Faith and Tyranny,” Rogers WIlliams University Law Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring 2021.

[12] T. J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3, June 1985, pp. 567–593.

[13] “How America’s God Squad was Mobilized,” American Atheist Magazine, vol. 53, no 2, Q2 2015.

“The Constitution, which contains no reference to God, is a purely secular document,” wrote historian Eric Foner in his book The Story of American Freedom (1998).     [1] In his book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (2019), Andrew Seidel expands on Foner’s point, demonstrating that the Constitution’s Framers consciously rejected biblical values in …