Faith in Constitutions: In God Some Trust


FOR a couple of recent postings, I had to consult the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, which still has many references to the spiritual, despite the removal in 1973 of a line about the special position of the Roman Catholic church, and the ongoing arguments over its provisions on reproductive matters.

That got me thinking about how many other countries' constitutions have a religious dimension. The "religiosity" of a country's basic law, as I discovered, generally tells you more about its political history than about the religious feelings of its present-day population. The American constitution contains no reference to God, unless you count the words "In the year of our Lord…"  During the civil war, there was an unsuccessful movement (on the northern side) to insert an explicitly Christian amendment. To many early Americans, it must have felt strange to live in a country which had no established religion, and where the First Amendment made clear there would never be one.  But remember, America's founders were keen to distance themselves from the harsh and divisive theocracies of Europe.

Meanwhile many European countries, whose populations are less devout than America's, retain some reference to God or religion in their system or founding charter. Under Britain's unwritten constitution, the monarch is head of the Church of England and guarantor of a different church in Scotland. In Norway, where I have just arrived for a human-rights conference called the Oslo Freedom Forum, there have been some moves to loosen the link between state, church and crown, but the process is incomplete. The country no longer recognises the Lutheran church as the established faith, but it is still officially designated as the "people's church" and the monarch must belong to it. If you have a monarchy whose authority is (however vestigially) spiritual as well as temporal, then you have a political system which is not entirely secular.

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  1. Ah yes, despite England having a state religion we have learned over the years Sir, that any Englishman is far better than any god.

  2. Interesting piece, and also the discussion in the Economist which follows. Perhaps for a future exercise you might want to try to correlate the Constitutional provisions of states which have entered into Concordats with the Roman Catholic Church versus the rest? There’s a good resource at

    The problem with concordats is they bind future Parliaments, being international treaties which can only be changed with the consent of the Vatican. One glaring result is the infamous 1933 Hitler Konkordat which is still in force in Germany. Hitler signed this as a sop to the Catholic MPs whose votes he needed for Parliament to grant him dictatorial powers. We know how well that worked out…

  3. Separation of church and state began with the rise of guilds, the private-sector. It’s not so much separation of church and state, as it is awarding the prize of state power to economic interests. Funny that the private sector now complains about the influence of the state on their affairs. Be careful what you wish for.

    Moralism and behavior codes was always an issue. The church had begun regulating prostitution as a harm-reduction strategy, basically fostering a permissive liberal society. It was the guilds that imposed execution on adulterers as a means usurping the church’s moral authority (madness is not exclusive to theocracy). Invoking the terms of religion would be a compromise to the victory of economic interests over the church. This was all recent memory for the US Founding Fathers, and what they created in the US Constitution was an anarchistic, corporate charter that rejected all perceivable forms of authority. Issues of power only concerned the economic class, land owners. It was a cabal of capitalists (before there was such a term), pure pragmatism. No land, no vote. Why should a popper have a say? That would be tyrannical, truly mob-rule. If you don’t have a stake in the game, you shouldn’t get a say, same reason British people don’t get to vote in our elections (even the White male land-owners).

    Somewhere along the line we lost our way, began thinking everyone should have a right to vote as if it were some honor, like wearing a crown, and the madness began again. The amount of laws passed after the Civil War skyrocketed. Women were allowed to vote and the Constitution was vandalized with the only Amendment to limit personal liberty (Prohibition). Women had no stake in American society, which continues to be a morbid injustice, but giving them the power to tell people what to do is no remedy. This is why I like the title of article. We began worshiping the power-system, treating the president like a monarch, and referring to the Constitution as Scripture.

    Pardon if this was a rant, but I expected more assholery from the Economist and felt compelled to fill the void.

  4. ” But Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor who helped draft the constitution of Iraq, has urged Westerners to understand why, in some circumstances, Islamic law and governance seem appealing. Islamic law implies at least some constraint on the leader; that is an improvement on secular totalitarianism. “

    What if your leader is the embodiment of islamic law?

    Rationalizations. We humans can go years without sexual intercourse but not one day without rationalizations!

  5. A constitution is where you argue about law in the abstract. The idea is without details you won’t be emotionally swayed and will get to the general guiding principle. You don’t know if will be your or someone else’s ox being gored, so you go for fairness rather than self-interest.

    In the USA the constitution is treated as if it were holy writ, as if people of the 1700s knew more about how to run things in 2013 than we do today. I would prefer it if the constitution were more often explicitly modified after public debate rather than the crazy twisting of clear language as was done with the second amendment and the rise of corporate power. Tolerating twisting gives too much power to political appointees.

    I could imagine a mini-Millian constitution, or meta-constitution preamble, of the form “The government may not limit the freedom of action of any individual unless it can be clearly demonstrated that action would harm others.”

    There is a problem with modifying a constitution. Constructing a constitution requires high mindedness. It is not something you can create with a popular vote. South Africa used experts from all over the world to create its constitution.

  6. In reply to #5 by Roedy:

    In the USA the constitution is treated as if it were holy writ, as if people of the 1700s knew more about how to run things in 2013 than we do today. I would prefer it if the constitution were more often explicitly modified after public debate

    I agree the constitution is difficult to modify but that was by design not because its treated with reverence. In fact most US lawmakers regularly try to subvert it when given the chance. E.g. laws that make abortion impossible to get in some states even though its been ruled a constitutional right

    And while I agree it leaves us with some anachronisms (like the right to a gun having more value then the right to be free from random violence) over all I think that as in a lot of things the founding fathers were pretty far sighted. When you look at opinion polls where US citizens are asked about basic rights like habeus corpus, free speech, and other civil liberties (without being reminded they are in the bill of rights) the majority of Americans are often against them or at least willing to give them up for national security. Looking back at times like after 9/11 if the constitution had been easier to modify I think it would have been done. Of course US lawmakers and judges have been circumventing it pretty easily with things like FISA courts and Patriot Acts anyway.

  7. In the immediate aftermath of the establishment of the colonies, they had state religions just like they were used to back in Europe. They quickly discovered that, despite being from groups that had been persecuted, they were as capable of abusing power as those they fled. The Constitution itself has clauses like those that forbid religious tests and we also have the First Amendment with it’s guarantee of “free exercise” because, whether Christian, Atheist, or whatever else, no one can be trusted with the power of the government if the option exists to force your beliefs on other people. For those of strong beliefs, it should be noted this protects the “purity” of religious belief from the corrupting temptation the government wallows in.

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