Every generation has its heros on the pop charts

June 25, 2004

I have been reading a lot of state constitutions this week while working on my discussions of sovereignty and civil religion. I do like reading the old state constitutions, and I do like that they remind us that the founders were trying to figure out how to make things work; just as the United States Constitution is not Athena - it did not spring forth, fully grown, the brow of Madison - so too were state constitutions constantly made and remade over the years.

What is bugging me is that as a statement of philosophy I do believe that we can not privilege 1776 or 1787 or 1789 to the point where we can stop our reading there. In fact, by looking at what the second generation did about religion I am making my only dig at the straw-man of the ultra-originalist who does not want to believe anything that Gouvernor Morris was not thinking of as he arranged the various clauses. What people did in the 1800s mattered, so does what they did in the 1840s and 1850s.

What is bugging me is that while I want to argue that the states followed the lead of the Federal Government in depoliticizing religion and using basic law to make sure that electoral battles could not become proxies for religious war, in the half-century after the Civil War most states (every state I have checked so far, but I am still early on in it) added God talk to the preambles of their Constitutions. The talk is fairly consistent from state to state: several states re-wrote their Constitutions "thanking Almighty God for the blessings of liberty which He has bestowed upon us" or, in the case of Virginia in 1901, "with gratitude to God for His past favors, and invoking His blessings upon, the result of our deliberations."

What does it mean for modern church-state jurisprudence that the second generation of Americans moved to depoliticize religion, while the post-Civil War generation (North and South) moved to add language thanking God for liberty?

My current thought is a vague memory that the same folks who tried to get a Christian Nation amendment through the U.S. Senate also worked on the state level and lobbied every state Constitutional Convention. My followup thoughts are that this language must have seemed sufficiently apolitical as not to be a threat - all the states also forbid religious tests or preferences for one sect over another. My final thought at the moment is a little snarky: after the Civil War I can see people, North and South, interpreting the War as a Providential test and judgment and thanking God for their liberties as a result of this Providential test. It means assuming that you know God's Providence - something Lincoln refused to do but that ministers North and South did throughout and then after the war - but the late 19th Century had that much self confidence.

My final thought is that the God that made it into the state Constitutions in the late 19th century is an awfully abstract Deity. This is more than the ceremonial theism that some commentators see in the various invocations of the Divine that we find scattered through American government on its various levels, but it is also a LOT less specific than, say, Roy's Rock with its sectarian presentation of civil religion.

As I said, I am thinking on this. This post is a think piece to help me figure out what to do and how to handle this question.

Posted by Red Ted at June 25, 2004 07:29 AM | TrackBack

Ah, but New Hampshire is still running under its 1783 Constitution, as amended - it did not hold a Constitutional Convention during the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

The 1783 preamble was most remarkably concise: "The Constitution of New Hampshire, as altered and amended by a convention of delegates held at Concord, in said State, by adjournment, on the second Wednesday of February, 1792."

Posted by: Ted K. at June 25, 2004 04:37 AM

Ah.. that would explain it. Thanks

Posted by: abby at June 25, 2004 10:57 AM

As far as I can tell (looking at the official online copy on the state website), NH's State Constitution has no preamble whatsoever, let alone one mentioning God. Or perhaps the official online copy just leaves out the preamble, which would be kind of silly, but not terribly surprising. However, I would not put it past this state to have a quirk like that. as it would certainly not be the only one.

Posted by: abby at June 25, 2004 11:13 AM

I see the online copy of the NJ constiution is dated 1947 and thanks god in its preamble.

Very irritating, as it implies that god means for Americans to be free and (e.g.) Chinese to live in tyrrany. Why do theists paint god into these ridiculous corners? Again I'll swipe Ingersoll's line: if I'm wrong and there is a god, I hope he remembers I denied these lies for him.

Posted by: DFH at June 27, 2004 07:21 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?