God and the Constitution of the United States
By Kevin McCarthy 4/25/2020
It is a rather common assumption that the Constitution of the United States is merely a secular document not bound to immutable transcendent principles. The evidence that is sometimes cited for this assertion is the absence of the mention of God in the entire 7591-word text of the Constitution.
This notion that the Constitution is unfettered from immutable transcendent principles forms the basis for the assertion that the meaning of the Constitution is pliable and can undulate over time to accommodate the changing mores of each contemporary age. It is, of course, the progressive Darwinian assertion that the Constitution is “living and breathing,” and therefore, is constantly evolving.
The early Progressives of the late 19th century openly opposed the founders and their notion that the Creator had bequeathed natural rights to each individual as well as the legal standing, by Natural Law, to claim such natural rights and to oppose any “power of the earth” that would attempt to abridge them.
Progressives, such as Woodrow Wilson, believed the founder’s assertions made governance inefficient and, thus, less effective. He concluded that governance should be the exclusive purview of a high cadre of well-trained experts that could be insulated from the intrusive ebb and flow of the political process. It would be left to this high cadre to determine the sphere of our individual freedoms in accordance with their notion of the common good. If that sounds remarkably similar to what is going on today, it’s not a coincidence.
This notion of a pliable and changing Constitution often generates public discussions and forums around the question, “What does the Constitution mean?” However, a much more pertinent and essential question regarding the Constitution is, “What is it?” Without knowing what the Constitution is, we hardly have a proper context to understand what it means.
So, let us answer that question. What is the Constitution? In a simple, thumbnail sketch, the Constitution describes how governing powers will be distributed and organized. In that process, certain principles emerge: the principle of governing co-equal branches, the principle of checks and balances, the principle of limited government, that is, the general ideas once commonly taught in Civics 101.
Let’s drill down further to pinpoint the more distinctive features often overlooked regarding the Constitution. The first distinction being that all governing powers being distributed originate from the people. Thus, we see the first three words of the Constitution: WE THE PEOPLE in capital letters and in the largest font. This is the first and foremost distinction; governing power originates, not from government, but rather from the governed by their consent. A most important question naturally arises. What is the basis, that is, the legal standing, upon which the people assert such an authority? We will answer that in a moment and the answer will also be relevant in refuting the notion that the Constitution is a secular document separate from the transcendent principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
A second distinction, related to the unique authority of WE THE PEOPLE, is that the Constitution was not ratified by a legislative body, as was the Articles of Confederation. Because the Constitution explains in what manner the people’s powers are to be distributed and organized, the founders felt it would be incumbent upon the people of each of the states to directly ratify the proposed Constitution. Of course, this is what inspired the creation of the Federalist Papers; 85 essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison that put forth the justifications to, hopefully, persuade the people of New York, a very important and influential state, to ratify the proposed Constitution.
A third distinction is that a portion of the people’s power is not distributed but is, rather, reserved to the people. In other words, the people did not hand over all governing powers. As a result, the people themselves are a seat (or branch) of government. That means the people are active participants in their own government. The people’s role in self-government doesn’t just pertain to political involvement in the affairs of government, but also entails the governing of the self by the voluntary application of the rule of law in public conduct and by way of a personal moral code in the private realm.
Thus, the rule of law together with a moral code is essential to the system of self-government. It is the voluntary application of laws and virtues to public and personal behavior that is, therefore, essential to liberty.
For this reason, the Founders deemed religious faith, and thus religious freedom, to be essential to civil society because the transcendent religious realm was the source of the world’s moral codes. Madison had mentioned that “before one can be a member of civil society, one must be ‘subject to the Governor of the Universe,’” Adams warned us that the Constitution would only function for a “moral and religious people.” Without it, Benjamin Rush pointed out, “there can be no liberty.”
We now must ask that most important question: What gives THE PEOPLE the legal standing to claim themselves to be the source and arbiter of governing powers? No doubt, this was King George III’s question when confronted with the American Revolution. The answer was provided to him, and to the world, within the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence: When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.
Natural Law, that is the laws of nature and nature’s God, entitle us with legal standing “equal to the powers of the earth.” The Declaration further states that we are created equal and are endowed by the Creator with a certain claim to governing rights in our quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Dr. Larry Arne, president of Hillsdale College, describes the Declaration as being essential to the Constitution because it describes, “what is a human and how ought a human be governed.”
So then, how are a people to be justly governed when, as Jefferson asserted, none are “born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred.” The Declaration provides the answer again. Recognizing that “we are not angels,” we form a government laying “its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them (the governed) shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”
This then is what the Constitution is. For any nation, just governance requires that the people’s power endowed to them be organized in such a form, as to them, the governed, shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness. Anything else will only produce oppression and tyranny.
That the Constitution begins with the words “WE THE PEOPLE” in the largest font is the affirmation and recognition that THE PEOPLE have the legal standing, granted to them by God, to thus distribute and organize THEIR power. It is why the Preamble to the Constitution gives recognition to that fact in these words: We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The word “God” is not mentioned because it is self-evident in the notion of the people having legal standing to organize and distribute their power bequeathed to them from God. It is self-evident and implicit within the Preamble’s assertion that to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” which flows from God, is the duty of good governance.
This power can never be taken from us…unless…we could be fooled into voluntarily giving it up.