Did the Founders really “forget” to mention God in the Constitution?

Welcome to the follow-up to our Presidents Day Quiz. If you have not taken the quiz yet, please visit this link before viewing the answers.

Presidents Day Quiz—Answers & Explanations

1. The first law enacted to protect freedom of religion in America was drafted by a Pilgrim living in Plymouth.

    False! The first law to protect freedom of religion in America was drafted by a Catholic, Lord Baltimore, and enacted in Maryland in 1634.  Known as the Maryland Toleration Act, the law provided that no one should be “troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.”  The law was repealed fifteen years later, when Protestant assemblymen controlled the Maryland Assembly, and replaced with a law expressly barring Catholics from practicing their faith.

2. Anne Hutchison, an early Puritan settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was celebrated by Puritan officials for her strong religious convictions and her leadership on religious liberty.

    False! Anne Hutchison was reviled by Puritan authorities for her strong religious convictions and her opposition to state-enforced orthodoxy.  Hutchison was put on trial for her religious views and banished from the colony.  One of the ministers who presided over her trial described Hutchison’s transgressions thusly: “You have stepped out of your place, you have rather been a husband than a wife, a preacher than a hearer, and a magistrate than a subject.”

3. After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when Alexander Hamilton was asked why God had not been mentioned in the Constitution, he reportedly quipped, “We forgot.”

    True! The story of Hamilton’s famous quip may be apocryphal, but the Founders really didn’t mention God in our country’s charter.   In fact, the only reference to a supreme being anywhere in the text of the original Constitution is in the date, which reads “the Seventeenth Day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”

4. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees five liberties.

    True! The First Amendment of United States Constitution guarantees five distinct but related liberties:  religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.  This matrix of liberties is deemed so essential to democracy that these five freedoms are often termed “the First Freedoms.”

5. Although the Founders believed in religious liberty, they justified excluding atheists from the protections guaranteed Christians on the grounds that atheism is not a religion.

    False! The Founders believed in religious liberty for all, regardless of creed, and many expressly recognized that the freedom to worship according to one’s own conscience must extend even to non-believers.  As John Adams said, “Government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his opinions.”  Thomas Jefferson expressed it this way: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But 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.”

6. The concept of “separation of church and state” was alien to the Founders and was first introduced into American law by a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in the 1970s.

    False! The concept of “separation of church and state” was very much on the minds of the Founders when they drafted the First Amendment.  Thomas Jefferson famously used the phrase in a letter to Danbury, Connecticut Baptists: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of eternal separation between church and state.” James Madison likewise wrote of “total separation of the church from the state.”

7. The Commonwealth of Virginia, home to eight U.S. presidents, was officially an Anglican state, where a Baptist preacher could be whipped and jailed for preaching without a state-issued license.

    True! The Commonwealth of Virginia was officially an Anglican state, and preaching views contrary to those of the official state church could and did land Baptists in jail.  The state church came to end in 1786, after the state enacted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson and championed by James Madison.

8. Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, who had been expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for advocating church-state separation and religious tolerance.

    True! Roger Williams was a constant source of vexation to Puritan officials because of his outspoken criticism of the King of England and insistence that civil government had no business enforcing the provisions of the Ten Commandments relating to worship.  Williams was convicted of sedition and heresy for his views and banished in October 1635.  He and his followers made their way to what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

9. When the Founders drafted the Pledge of Allegiance, they included the words “one nation under God” because they believed that Americans’ shared commitment to democracy could transcend religious differences.

    False! The Pledge of Allegiance, drafted in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, did not contain the phrase “under God” when it was formally adopted by Congress in 1942.  The words “under God” were first added in 1954.

10. James Madison believed that government was better without kings, but that religion should be backed by government to ensure that citizens lived moral lives.

    False! James Madison wrote: “We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without kings and nobles than with them.  The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government.”

At least two correct answers: You are free to learn more about religious freedom.

At least five correct answers:You are enlightened about religious freedom.

At least eight correct answers: You are a beacon of knowledge about religious freedom.

Want to learn more about religious freedom in Texas? The ACLU of Texas will be presenting “Know Your Rights: Religious Liberty in School” workshops and hosting debates on religious freedom this March. Learn more about our Road Show plans for Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso.

11 thoughts on “Did the Founders really “forget” to mention God in the Constitution?”

  1. If only the founders could see how the religious right has twisted their words. What a shame that such marvelous document is distorted to achieve their ends.

  2. I wish you had left out the question about Hamilton. It perpetuates a dubious anecdote which is utterly uncharacteristic of the man. Hamilton was a careful, penetrating thinker who, as one biographer pointed out, “never forgot anything important”.

    Besides, when did any 18th-century statesman ever answer a question with two words? Anyone of that era would have said, “Sir, in the exigencies of these most difficult negotiations, this detail was overlooked by ourselves.”

  3. According to my tally, I missed The James Madison secular question and the mention of atheism by the founding fathers.
    The problem here is everyone is using the same words to describe different things. Leading to vast discrepancies in meaning.
    I am confused as to what the ACLU means to accomplish by asking these questions in this way and in this order?
    I worship in any temple or church where i feel welcome. I vote in voting booths..Which is rarely as they say on sabbath anyway. In all fairness I believe the subjects are only inflammatory due to natural ignorance of ‘not seeing’ others points of view.
    So I admit I don’t see the point of view that motivates this President’s Day Quiz. Sorry

  4. THIS should be part of the body of standardized tests which our children are required to pass in order to receive a diploma. Unfortunately, I rather doubt that this type of information is included in the curriculum at all. As I recall history and civics classes in school, they were often founded more on the perpetuation of myths than upon the dissemination of actual knowledge.

  5. Actually, the Puritans used to execute Quakers. Then again, while the US might have blathered about not introducing a state religion, in fact they did favor the xtian faith and outlawed all Native faiths. Then again, the US always was founded on hypocrisy. Furthermore, why do Americans in the 21st century even give a hang what those hypocritical, genocidal slave-owners of over 200 years ago were thinking? While the world moves forward, Americans seem to be mired in the past worrying about those stupid founding fathers. Luckily the Italians aren’t fixated on the opinions of every Roman emperor and the Russians don’t keep examining every word some czar once uttered. Get over those ancient jerks already and move on.

  6. Mr Hargis – perhaps you ought to exercise your freedom to learn more about the historic and contemporary disagreements over the place of religion and government in the U.S.

    I assume that the questions were worded as they were for several reasons..the simplest..to make them less than obvious-easy, such as the Anne Hutchinson one, or the one about the Pilgrims and the first law protecting religious liberty.
    But also, some of them incorporate popular myths and misunderstandings. These deserve to be debunked, and what better way than a quiz with explanatory answers?

    I am constantly amazed at the number of folks who think the Pledge of Allegiance was written by the Founders, or is part of the Constitution or something equally silly. If people realize how minor its author was, and its original version, they might not get so uptight about its recitation.

  7. Mr.Daniel G. Hargis,
    Your question; “I am confused as to what the ACLU means to accomplish by asking these questions in this way and in this order?” is answered in the body of the email as: The answers reveal our nation’s deep struggle over the freedom to express unpopular religious views and the problems that arise when government gets involved in religion.
    I can’t quote their reasons for pointing out these things but can guess that the point is to shed some light on issues that certain parties continue to bring up. It seems that some will claim patriotism in religious contexts when the two are as separate as the original idea of church and state.
    There are many who think that reminders of this sort are “attacks” on religion. I believe the ACLU wants to point out that the opposite is true. By separating the two, the possibility of the state governing one’s religion (or lack thereof) are diminished.
    I personally believe that elements of our nation have shifted dangerously close to the point at which someone else is able to dictate how I “should” feel/pray/etc. This is certainly evident when laws are passed that grant churches and religious groups special “favors”, exemptions, etc. and when a person can be ostracized for reminding others to stay out of their beliefs!

  8. I didn’t finish H.S. And am an atheist ,I got seven. Just for giggles I passed this around to my hard core religious friends with collage degrees,wow, not sure how one can self describe ones self as educated and religious and not get even one when it’s fifty fifty…

  9. In re the concept of “separation of church and state” being alien to the Founders, and where it was first introduced into American law. Your answer is a circumvention. Telling us that various founders wrote about the concept is not the same as telling us where the concept first found its way into jurisprudence. They thought and wrote about a lot of things, like equality and freedom, yet many had slaves, which does not speak well about thought translating into action. Let’s try to not avoid the question – where was the concept first introduced into American law, and not was the idea floating around the heads of men who did not have what it took to include it into the Constitution.

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