Today is Constitution Day, so it might be a good time to look back on the important debates that have revolved around this profound and revolutionary document. There have certainly been many, but one of the most significant might be that initiated by a group called the NRA. No: I don’t mean the gun lobbyists–the debate I’m referring to has nothing to do with the Second Amendment.
There was, in fact, an NRA before the National Rifle Association. It was formed after the Civil War (during the Lincoln presidency) and was called the National Reform Association. Composed mainly of conservative Protestants (theologians, academics, lawyers), this national movement counted among its ranks the likes of William Strong, retired Justice of the Supreme Court. Their agenda was simple but perhaps much more ambitious than that of our NRA today: rather than defending or contesting a particular interpretation of a single amendment, they sought to introduce one, which is a much bolder feat.
What sort of amendment were they seeking? A Christian one. They sought to introduce a sentence, or a phrase more accurately. They militated for the preamble to be modified to read as follows:
We the People of the United States, [humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government,] and in order to form a more perfect union…
And in this way they would establish what they called the “Social Kingship” of Christ. Now rather than defend or critique their argument, I’d prefer today, as a memorial day for this document, to simply provide some of their arguments, so that those who may have never heard of this movement might, whether they agree or disagree, have the benefit of the awareness that comes with knowledge of history.
Their complaint, according to the Proceedings of the National Convention to Secure the Religious Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, begins thus:
…it is a striking and solemn fact that our present National Constitution is so devoid of any distinctive Christian feature, that one of our Chief Magistrates [Jefferson] once refused to appoint a day of fasting and prayer in an hour of public calamity, because the nation, in its Constitution, recognized no God; and another [John Adams], in contracting a treaty with a Mohammedan power, hesitated not to declare that ‘the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. It has in itself no character of enmity against the laws and religion of Mussulmans.’
The treaty mentioned in reference to Adams was of course the Treaty of Tripoli (1797). Their argument was not that Adams was wrong, but in fact that he was right:
The people of the United States are awakening to the fact that the National Constitution is destitute of any explicit acknowledgment of God or the Christian religion. Although it is the fundamental law of a great Christian people, its want of a distinct Christian character has led even such men as Dr. Woolsey, ex-President of Yale College, to state that it would need no change to adapt it to a Mohammedan nation.
In the proceedings they also cite a sermon by Rev. Thomas Robbins from nearly sixty years earlier:
The great evil of our country, in my view, is that we have attempted to strike out a new path to national prosperity regardless of the dictates of experience and the testimony of the word of God. We have not been a religious but a political people…In our collective national capacity we do not worship the God of heaven, we do not acknowledge his Son, we do not receive His Holy Word.
And also from the President of Yale, Timothy Dwight:
We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgement of God; without any recognition of His mercies to us, as a people, of His government, or even His existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked even once, His direction, or His blessing, upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God.
Dr. John Mason exclaimed that no other religious people would be so bold:
Had such a momentous business been transacted by Mohammedans, they would have begun, “In the name of God.” Even the savages whom we despise, setting a better example, would have paid some homage to the Great Spirit. But from the Constitution of the United States, it is impossible to ascertain what God we worship, or whether we own a God at all.
Of God, James R. Wilson claimed in one sermon:
He was not merely forgotten. He was absolutely voted out of the Constitution. The proceedings, as published Thompson, the secretary, and the history of the day, show that the question was gravely debated whether God should be in the Constitution or not, and after a solemn debate he was deliberately voted out of it…
Neutrality, for these men, was out of the question. They believed it impossible, as Tayler Lewis said: “Every modern state must be Christian or anti-Christian. Neutrality is impossible.” And this he based on the Gospel saying of Christ himself that “he that is not for me is against me, he that gathereth not with me, scattereth abroad.”
Their fear, in light of the above logic, was that a non-Christian or anti-Christian Constitution would sooner or later resolve all Christian elements of law to itself. In a sense, so long as the Constitution as is existed, it existed in contradiction to all morality and legislation that might reinforce Christian morality or theology. Contradiction such as this must resolve itself one way or the other:
The written Constitution must be amended to conform to the facts as they have actually evolved. If this be not done, the Constitution will in time conform everything to itself. The facts, usages, the legislative and judicial actions, everything, in a word, that is out of harmony with the written instrument, will give way before its moulding and controlling influence, and disappear.
Lincoln, as history tells us, rejected their pleas, and the issue of a Christian amendment has been dead ever since. But whether you find these complaints prophetic or pessimistic, bigoted or courageous, they lend an interesting perspective to the history of that document which we remember on this day. Moreover the positive character–the desire to take what they were given an improve it–is distinctly different that much of what passes for Constitutional debate in our era. By comparing the “old NRA” with the “new NRA,” we might sense a change in polarity: the evolution from “make the world a better place” to “I want what I’ve got coming to me.”