NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 83, Number 1

April 2008

Our Agnostic Constitution

Steven D. Smith

According to an argument heard a good deal lately, the fact that the Constitution says nothing about God means that we have a “godless Constitution,” and that fact in turn entails that government and politics in the United States must be godless or, in the more usual locution, secular. The commitment to secular government in turn is thought to preclude governmental sponsorship of religious expressions (such as the national motto “In God We Trust”) or of religious symbols (such as monuments to the Ten Commandments). This Essay argues that this interpretation of our “godless” Constitution is importantly correct—but even more importantly mistaken. It is true that the Founders purposefully made no reference to a deity—in contrast to many other state and national constitutions. Thus, the Constitution is godless or, more precisely, agnostic. But the agnosticism of the Constitution does not mean that governments operating under the Constitution must also be agnostic or that they must refrain from religious expression. On the contrary, paradoxical though this may initially seem, it is precisely the Constitution’s agnosticism that permits governments to engage in such expression. Drawing a comparison with personal agnosticism, this Essay contends that, similar to a person who both believes and doubts at different cognitive levels, the political community too can affirm particular beliefs (on religious issues, for example) at one jurisdictional or juridical level while remaining noncommittal on other, more constitutive levels. Such “layered believing” can offer a valuable strategy for creating and maintaining political community in the midst of great diversity.