Philosophical and Historical Foundations of American Secularism 14 – Constitutionally Wrought Freethought


Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).

Here we talk about the American Constitution.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When we look at the well-made human document called the American Constitution, some questions arise for the freethought community, potentially, or, at least, some in it. What parts before amendments best exemplify freethought and secularism? What amendments improve upon the original document in terms of the specific content of secularism and the freethinking ability of individual citizens?

Dr. Herb Silverman: The framers of the United States Constitution wanted no part of the religious intolerance, holy wars, and bloodshed they saw in Europe. In declaring independence from England, Americans also rejected the claim by kings, crowned by bishops, that they had been vested with a God-given authority to rule through “divine right.”

The U.S. framers wisely established the first government in history to separate religion and government. They formed a secularnation whose authority rests with “We the People” (the first three words of the U.S. Constitution) and not with “Thou the Deity.” They created a Constitution in which the government acknowledged no gods, the better to ensure freedom of conscience. We the people are free to worship one, many, or no gods. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

There are only two references to religion in the U.S. Constitution, and both are exclusionary. One is in Article 6: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” I know Article 6 quite well. When I discovered in 1990 that our South Carolina state constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, an obvious violation of Article 6, I challenged that provision in the state constitution by running for governor as “the candidate without a prayer.” In 1997 I won a unanimous decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court, invalidating the unconstitutional provision and recognizing that atheists have the right to hold public office in South Carolina.

The other exclusionary mention of religion is in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This guarantees the right to practice any religion or no religion. The federal government cannot favor one religion over another, or believers over non-believers. No one’s religious liberty is threatened when the wall of separation between religion and government is kept strong.

As wonderful as the U.S. Constitution is, no American would call it an infallible document, as some claim about the Bible. The framers understood the need for future changes in the Constitution, and set forth mechanisms for change through amendments. Scientific and humanistic advances make it desirable to incorporate new information and adjust our worldview and behavior. The Constitution condoned slavery until the 13th Amendment ended it in 1865. Women were not granted the right to vote until 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed. On the other hand, the unamended Bible written by misogynistic men condones slavery. You will also not find any support in the Bible for respecting people who have different or no religious beliefs.

While the U.S. federal government was never considered to be a Christian nation, initially there was no prohibition against states establishing their own state churches. Some early state constitutions limited public office to Christians—or even to the correct Christian denomination. Such provisions represented a more intolerant time in our history. States with government-favored religions gradually began moving toward separating religion and government. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, ended state-sponsored religion.

Those who claim the United States is a Christian nation need to read the Constitution. You will not find the words Christian, Jesus, or God in it. Our framers were careful and thoughtful writers. Had they wanted a Christian nation, it seems highly unlikely that they would somehow have forgotten to include their Christian intentions in the supreme law of the land. In 1797, the Treaty of Tripoli was ratified unanimously by the United States Senate. This trade treaty stated in part: “The government of the United States is notin any sense founded on the Christian religion.” I wonder what part of “not” those who believe we are a Christian nation don’t understand.

Nevertheless, Christian-nation advocates continually try chipping away the “secular,” often with symbols like “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God.” They also try to legislate the posting of the Ten Commandments on public buildings. Most Americans believe that the Ten Commandments are among the finest guidelines for a virtuous life. Interestingly, hardly anyone can actually state them all. So I will, along with my commentary.

The First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” conflicts with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion—the right to worship one, several, or no gods. The next three Commandments (no graven images, not taking God’s name in vain, keeping the Sabbath day holy) refer to specific kinds of worship directed toward a God who punishes several generations of children if their fathers do not worship appropriately. These first four commandments are religious edicts that have nothing to do with moral or ethical behavior. They describe how to worship and pay homage to a jealous and vindictive God.

The Fifth Commandment, about honoring parents, should not be so unconditional as to condone child abuse. There is no commandment about parents honoring their children or treating them humanely. 

The next four commandments (proscriptions against murder, adultery, stealing, and lying) obviously have merit, and existed in cultures long before these commandments appeared in Exodus 20. Yet even these are open to interpretation. Is abortion murder? What about euthanasia? War? Capital punishment? Reasonable people can disagree and respect other opinions, unless convinced they are acting as God’s messenger.

The Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, ox, donkey, or any other property,” condones slavery and treating women as property.

The Ten Commandments, meant to be the cornerstone of an ethical and moral life, are notable for what they omit. Why not condemn slavery, racism, sexual assault, child and spouse abuse, and torture? Most people could come up with a better set of rules to live by.

I propose a simple solution that both honors our democratic principles and reminds us of the curbs on governmental abuse of power. Why don’t we display our American Bill of Rights on public buildings? We would still be posting ten, and we Americans can all support and celebrate these ten. Or can we?

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.

Photo by John Bakator on Unsplash

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