How the Constitution Became Christian


How the Constitution Became Christian

Jared A. Goldstein, Roger Williams University School of Law, February 27, 2016, Roger Williams Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 167

Abstract: Although the Constitution is conventionally portrayed as the embodiment of what it means to be American, it is more accurate to describe the Constitution as the battleground over which disputes over national identity are fought. This article illustrates the dynamics that transform conflicts over national identity into constitutional issues by examining three episodes in the recurring debate over whether the United States should be considered a “Christian nation” — the nineteenth-century movement to add an expression of Christian faith to the Constitution, mid-twentieth-century Judeo-Christian nationalism, and the New Christian Right that began in the 1970s. These episodes reveal that over the past century a shift has occurred among Christian nationalists, who have moved from denouncing the Constitution as a godless document unworthy of a Christian people to lauding the Constitution as an expression of the nation’s Christian identity.

This article asks how the Constitution became (for many Americans at least) Christian.

The answer lies in America’s constitutional culture, which channels conflicts over national identity into constitutional disputes. The episodes examined here follow a similar pattern. In each case, members of a dominant religious group mobilized in response to perceived threats to their status — from Catholics, immigrants, Communists, and secular humanists. In each episode, members of the movement believed Christian devotion to be part of America’s essence and therefore considered threats to Christian dominance as attacks on America itself. And in each case, the movement attempted to preserve the nation’s supposedly Christian identity by making constitutional demands, either to amend the Constitution to proclaim the nation’s Christian devotion or to interpret the Constitution to be Christian.

Through this recurring pattern — in which a threat to group status is seen on nationalist terms and mobilizes a movement to make constitutional demands — fights about what it means to be American become fights over the meaning of the Constitution. Rather than embodying what it means to be American, the Constitution provides a seemingly neutral and patriotic language for making claims of national inclusion and exclusion, for asserting that some people and some values are authentically American, while others are dangerously foreign and must be rejected.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 67

Goldstein, Jared A., How the Constitution Became Christian (February 27, 2016). Roger Williams Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 167. Available at SSRN:

About the Author

I am a Southerner, a father, husband, and Christian and retired active duty Army field grade officer; I served for just over thirty years. I spent four years of my youth at The Citadel in Charleston. I am neither a theologian nor a professional historian. I do however ask many questions and endeavor to find answers and I believe, or at least hope, that I think critically and with the understanding that God provides.

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