The question of whether and how to recognize a deity in framing a national government has dogged the United States since its founding in 1776. The Declaration of Independence contains a number of references to God, but most of these were not in Thomas Jefferson’s original draft; they were added either as Jefferson revised the Declaration with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin or as the Continental Congress edited Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson’s handiwork. Thus, for instance, the final Declaration includes both an appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and an announcement of Congress’s “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”; neither was Jefferson’s creation.1
Eleven years later, in 1787, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution took a more secular approach. Aside from the use of the phrase “the Year of our Lord” in Article VII, the Constitution does not mention a deity. Article VI proscribes the use of any religious test as a requirement to serve in office and, of course, the First Amendment, written in 1789 by the 1st Congress, announces that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In the nineteenth century, Americans became more religious as the Second Great Awakening swept the nation. Beginning in the 1840s, reaction against Catholic immigration helped foster a sense of Protestant national identity.2 By 1860–61, when most Southern states claimed to secede from the Union, Protestant political identity was strong enough that the drafters of the Confederate Constitution invoked “the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in the document’s preamble. And the sentiment that a national constitution ought to recognize God was by no means exclusively Southern; Northern clergymen lamented their own constitution’s failure to acknowledge God and even blamed Union military defeats on that omission.3 In 1863, a group of ministers gathered to propose a revised, God-invoking version of the Preamble, ultimately garnering the noncommittal half-endorsement of Abraham Lincoln and the approval of a number of prominent politicians, including Senators Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) and John Sherman (R-Ohio).4
Yet no member of Congress ever formally introduced the amendment onto the floor. In 1874, the House Committee on the Judiciary considered a petition on the matter and decided that, since “this country . . . was [founded] to be the home of the oppressed of all nations of the earth, whether Christian or Pagan,” it would be “inexpedient to put anything into the Constitution or frame of government which might be construed to be a reference to any religious creed or doctrine.”5 An 1896 Los Angeles Times report on daily life on Capitol from provides some insight into the dynamic on the ground:
If anywhere in the United States a man becomes sufficiently eccentric to be classed as a crank, and not enough so to be confined in a lunatic asylum, he immediately conceives that it is his mission to come to Washington and have Congress crystalize his ‘ideas’ into laws. . . . There are always people who want to insert the word ‘God’ in the Constitution, as is done in some of the State Constitutions, and people who make it their business to see that this is not done. They watch each other like hawks, and all they accomplish is to create such a warfare that Congress will not consider it seriously.6
Campaigns to recognize God in the Constitution did manage to spark congressional action in 1894 and just before 1908, but only barely.7 A more significant uptick came in the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, with the onset of the Cold War, during which Americans were asked to confront and contrast themselves with a godless Soviet Union. But the real surge came in 1963, after the Supreme Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schempp that public school–sponsored Bible-reading and prayer violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A year earlier, the Court’s announcement in Engel v. Vitale that state governments could not sponsor school prayer, while controversial, had not sparked any discernible increase in would-be amendments. But now the floodgates opened: From 1963 to 1965, members of Congress introduced 121 proposals to recognize God in the Constitution—call these the “Abington amendments,” of which 87 would specifically have enacted the constitutionality of school prayer.
Proposals to Recognize God in the U.S. Constitution, 1984-2005
The floodgates closed quickly: By the early nineteen-seventies, God amendment proposals had subsided to pre-Abington Cold War levels. From 1985 through 1995 there were no God proposals at all. The last one came in 2005.
Why do members of Congress propose constitutional amendments? None of these proposals had any real chance of passing, nor were they part of any sustained effort to put God into the Constitution. But amendment proposals can also serve an expressive purpose: Members of Congress can propose amendments to show, for instance, that they are frustrated with a recent Supreme Court decision. These data suggest that this is what motivated the wave of God amendments that rolled through Congress after Abington.
Still, study of even an ephemeral spurt of abortive amendments can be illuminating. For instance, virtually every Abington amendment—118 of the 121—was introduced by a member of the House of Representatives. It is possible that Representatives, with smaller constituencies than Senators, were far more likely to have critical masses of constituents supporting theistic amendments. It is also possible that they were more in touch with the popular views of the day—as the House of Representatives was designed to be.
Consider, too, the partisan divide of the amendments—or rather, the lack of one. Republicans produced 68, or 56 percent, of the Abington amendments: a solid majority, but not an overwhelming one. In the wider sweep of American history, trying to get God into the Constitution has been a mostly but by no means exclusively Republican enterprise: Republicans have been behind 59 percent of the 236 God proposals since 1894. And though today the Republican Party is more associated than the Democratic with the blending of politics and religion, in the most recent spate of God proposals, from the early 2000s, Democrats slightly edged out Republicans, four to three.
Share of God Amendments Proposals Introduced in Congress, by Partisan Affiliation
Moving from partisanship to geography provides a very rough window into the shifting geography of this issue since the 1890s:
Congressional Proposals to Acknowledge God in the US Constitution, 1894–1910
Congressional Proposals to Acknowledge God in the US Constitution, 1947–March 1963
Congressional Proposals to Acknowledge God in the US Constitution, 1963–1965
Congressional Proposals to Acknowledge God in the US Constitution, 1966–1984
Congressional Proposals to Acknowledge God in the US Constitution, 1996–2005
These maps provide a barometer, albeit an imperfect one, of the rise of the Religious Right, or what is more recently, called “Christian nationalism,” a vague and generally ahistorical term for a broad set of beliefs and practices. Plainly, there is more to Christian nationalism than trying to introduce Christianity into the Constitution. Still, the geographical distribution is striking: Every proposal since 1996 and 71 percent of proposals from between 1966 and 1984 came from states in the so-called Bible Belt.
Yet 71 percent is not 100, nor is it especially near it, and there are notable exceptions to the South’s preeminence; between 1966 and 1984, more God proposals came from each of Michigan and Ohio than from Texas, the lone state which produced God amendment proposals in each of the five periods I define. And the maps highlight just how recent is the South’s ascendancy in Christian politics: during the Abington wave, God amendments came from across the nation, centered apparently around the middle and lower Eastern Seaboard, including the Carolinas and Florida but also Pennsylvania.
The proposals reveal other patterns, too. Before Abington, God proposals were overwhelmingly explicitly Christian. The amendment promoted by clergymen in the mid–nineteenth century recognized “Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all.”8 There were exceptions: An 1896 proposal, expressing alarm that recent proposals to Christianize the constitution would exclude any “Unitarian, Jew, or Deist, who, nevertheless, might be a patriotic and useful citizen” from civic participation, would simply have inserted “trusting in Almighty God” after “our posterity” in the Preamble. But this was explicitly a proposal against the tide: until 1963, most of the proposals invoked Jesus of Nazareth.
Explicit Religious Character of God Proposals, 1894–2005
Yet after Abington, the proposals almost uniformly dropped Christianity. Much of what was at issue in the controversy surrounding Abington was whether school prayer as such constituted sectarian policy. The Supreme Court had contended that it did: that it operated to exclude from the classroom community any student who deigned not to participate. By introducing proposals constitutionally to recognize God without recognizing the authority or divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, members of Congress argued that theistic national commitments were fundamentally different from Christian ones: that they were general enough not to impose sectarianism or infringe upon religious liberty.
Perhaps this was merely a tactical shift in rhetoric. But the dramatic increase in God proposals post-Abington suggests that Abington energized people who had not previously been invested in recognizing God in the Constitution. Why? Had these Americans previously taken for granted that the nation had theological commitments without believing that it had specifically to be Christian?9 Did Abington change their minds? Had these people been pulled into a culture war? To what end? The Amend data suggest, in any case, that Abington marked a rupture.