How the Constitution Became Christian
51 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2016 Last revised: 26 Feb 2017
Date Written: February 27, 2016
Movements dedicated to making the United States a “Christian nation” have been a recurrent feature in American politics for more than 150 years. Over that time, however, the relationship between Christian nationalism and the Constitution has undergone a dramatic change. Nineteenth century Christian nationalists denounced the Constitution as a godless document unworthy of a Christian nation and fought for an amendment to express the nation’s Christian faith. In contrast, the contemporary Christian Right that coalesced in the 1970s lauds the Constitution as the highest 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 Constitution is conventionally portrayed as the embodiment of what it means to be American, but 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 conflicts by examining three movements in the longstanding debate over whether the United States should be understood to be a Christian nation: the nineteenth century Christian Amendment movement, mid-twentieth century Judeo-Christian nationalism, and the New Christian Right that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Although these movements differ in significant ways, they follow a similar pattern. In each case, members of the dominant religious group mobilize in response to perceived threats to their status – from Catholics, immigrants, communists, and secular humanist. In each episode, members of the mobilized 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 supposed 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 treat to group status is understood in nationalist terms and motivates a movement that makes 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.
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