Old World would be wise to look to New when drafting constitution

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Should the Constitution acknowledge God? Affirm Christianity? Mention religion? Those explosive questions – the subject of much debate in the United States since 1787 – are at the center of the most contentious argument among delegates to the European constitutional convention now meeting in Brussels.

Earlier this year, Europeans got their first look at a draft constitution for a “United Europe.” God failed to make the cut. Now more than 80 amendments are on the table proposing a multitude of ways to insert God, Christianity – or at least something about religion – in the article on “European values.”

Facing a June deadline to come up with a final draft, European delegates need to find some way to negotiate the place of God in their constitution. And while an “American solution” is probably the last thing many Europeans want to hear these days, the upstart United States has some wisdom on this issue.

Europe may be the center of Western civilization, but America is home to the world’s oldest – and most successful – living constitution. (Consider that the French have written and rewritten their constitution 15 times since 1789.)

What did the American framers say about God or Christianity in the U.S. Constitution when they deliberated in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787? Nothing at all.

In stark contrast to many other documents and state constitutions of the day, the Constitution (written by mostly religious men) is completely silent about God and Christianity.

Only once is religion even mentioned in the body of the Constitution. Article VI declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” With this bold stroke, the framers broke with European tradition and opened public office to people of all faiths or none.

Not surprisingly, this “Godless Constitution” was greeted with a firestorm of protest in 1787 – much like the angry reaction to the proposed European Constitution in the present day. “No religious test” was seen by many as the greatest flaw in the document – a flaw that would open the door to being governed by Jews, Catholics, Quakers and others seen as “undesirable” by many Protestants.

And the absence of any reference to God sparked widespread debate in the United States that lasted well into the 19th century (with echoes in the culture wars of today). Periodic efforts to offer a “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution – especially during the Civil War and at other times of crisis – gathered widespread support, but ultimately failed.

The current argument in Europe about religion and the constitution mirrors the early American debate. On one side, some Christian voices, including the Vatican, insist that the European Constitution must acknowledge the Christian roots of “European identity.” As one Orthodox leader argues, without mention of Christianity there’s no guarantee that “integral religious philosophy of life” will be taken into account when social policies are decided (think abortion, sexuality).

The other side warns against the evils of church-state entanglement – a source of conflict and division over the centuries in European history. They also point out that the constitution shouldn’t privilege Christianity and thereby make it difficult to admit predominately Muslim nations such as Turkey.

Clearly, this debate is about far more than “mentioning” God.

Europeans take note. The American experience is living proof that a so-called “Godless Constitution” doesn’t lead to a “Godless society.” In stark contrast to much of Western Europe where religious commitment is at an all-time low, the United States has a high level of religious involvement and activity. For those who still think state religion is good for religion, just visit the great churches of Europe on Sunday morning. You’ll see mostly tourists.

Constitutional silence about God is only part of the American solution. The rest of the answer is found in “no religious test” and in the guarantee of full religious liberty found in the first 16 words of the First Amendment. Despite periodic outbreaks of nativism and anti-Semitism, the United States begins the 21st century as one of the few places on Earth where people of all faiths and no faith live together in peace.

But American-style religious freedom may have trouble taking root in a United Europe – no matter what the new constitution says or doesn’t say. After all, France, Belgium and Germany have all recently passed laws restricting the religious liberty of minority faiths. And in some parts of Eastern Europe church and political leaders are working to re-establish the dominant religion. These aren’t hopeful signs for religious freedom in a new Europe.

Despite the barriers, the delegates to the European convention may yet find the courage and wisdom to avoid privileging any religion – while simultaneously guaranteeing full religious liberty for each and every person. Such a break from the precedents of European history would be nothing short of miraculous.

But if it can happen in Philadelphia in 1787, why not Brussels in 2003?