The Constitution was born on September 17, 1787, when it was signed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
Constitution Day is our annual national observance each September 17 – the Saturday of this year – commemorating the establishment of the United States of America and celebrating American citizenship.
Knowledge of our Constitution and its meaning begins with the Constitution itself. The preamble sets out six secular reasons why our nation was founded by and for “We the People.” The Constitution establishes our secular democratic government.
James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution”, proclaimed “it stems from the superior power of the people”. (public address, June 6, 1788) George Washington, “Father of our country,” wrote, “The Constitution is a guide I will never forsake.” (public letter, June 22, 1792).
The Constitution provides for three separate and equal branches of government for checks and balances of power. The legislative branch enacts the law (article I), the executive branch executes the law (article II) and the judiciary branch interprets the law (article III).
Article V provides two ways to amend the Constitution:
- Constitutional convention requiring two-thirds of the state legislatures to pass an amendment and three-fourths of the states to ratify (no amendments yet through process).
- Adoption of amendments by two-thirds of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the States (27 amendments).
The 1791 Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) and subsequent amendments guarantee our individual freedoms. The 14th Amendment guarantees that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are United States citizens and citizens of the state in which they reside.
Most Americans don’t know what our Constitution says about religion (Pew Research). The secular Constitution contains no reference to a religious deity. Article VI directs that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for office or public trust in the United States”, legally separating religion from government and protecting government from religion.
The 1st Amendment provides our historic trinity of religious freedoms:
- Freedom of religion established (or approved) by the government.
- Freedom of religion (or no religion).
- Freedom of religious (or non-religious) expression.
It legally separates government from religion, protects religion from government, and requires government neutrality toward religion.
The genesis of the 1st Amendment was the landmark Virginia Religious Liberty Act of 1785, authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which separated the Church and the State of Virginia and required that no one “shall be compelled to patronize or support worship, place or religious ministry of any kind”. Our 1st Amendment also provided a basis for Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
We were the first nation in history established without recognizing higher authority (emperor, monarch, dictator, deity, religion, scripture, etc.). There were no public prayers during the 116 days of the Constitutional Convention. When independence was proclaimed in 1776, less than 20% of the settlers belonged to religious establishments. Today, less than 50% of Americans belong to a church, synagogue or mosque (Gallup) and one in three Americans identify as non-religious or “Nones” (Pew Research).
Our Constitution created a secular, non-religious government. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli confirmed this to the world – “the government of the United States of America is in no way founded on the Christian religion”. This international legal document was negotiated under the administration of 1st President George Washington, unanimously ratified by the US Senate, and signed by 2nd President John Adams.
The history of the world records human evil when governments and religion have combined. The separation of church and state is a freedom of free people who have separated government and religion since the European Age of Enlightenment. Most Americans (73%) agree that religion should be separate from government (Pew Research). Jesus even separated government and religion (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17).
Importantly, the Native American contribution was officially recognized – “the confederation of the original thirteen colonies into a single republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many democratic principles that were incorporated in the Constitution itself. (Resolution of the 100th American Congress).
America has worked for 235 years to establish and expand individual freedoms for Americans.
We are one nation under our Constitution and that is the Constitution we should trust. We can celebrate with patriotic pride our Constitution and our American citizenship.
John Compere lives in Callahan County.