Bench Memos

On the Meaning of “No Religious Test”

It’s with great trepidation that I disagree, even at the margins, with Mona Charen, Bill Bennett, and William McGurn, but here goes.  The story begins with the comments of Rev. Robert Jeffress at the Values Voters Summit (offstage to reporters) that Mormonism is a “cult,” and that Christian voters “ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian”–the latter category including Mormons, in his view.  The next day Bill Bennett took the stage at the summit and upbraided Jeffress for “bigotry,” and he was quite right to do so.

Mona Charen blogged at The Corner over the weekend that folks should reacquaint themselves with Article VI of the Constitution, which says, inter alia, that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  This morning, Bill Bennett had Mona on his radio show and they agreed that it somehow requires us, as voters, to set aside our religious differences.  And in his weekly Wall Street Journal column today (which I heartily recommend in every other respect), William McGurn sounded the same note, quoting Article VI and saying, “It doesn’t get any clearer than that.”

Well, I’m all for clarity, so let me be clear here about the problem I see in these recitations of the “no religious test” clause: By its terms, it doesn’t apply to the decisions of voters at all.  Like every other passive-voiced prohibition in the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights (e.g., “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed,” or “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”), the “no religious test” clause is a constraint on the legal authority of the national government.  It means that Congress may not enact any statute that disables someone from holding office on religious grounds.  The letter of the clause has simply nothing to say to voters, who remain free to make their own judgments on whatever grounds they please, religious or otherwise.

Could we say that the spirit of the “no religious test” clause, or its public-educational purpose, is to inculcate in the American people a broad-minded willingness to meet one another in the public square as free, equal, tolerant fellow citizens who can set aside theological and doctrinal differences?  Yes, by all means.  But this “civic religion” of ours, attaching ourselves to the Constitution we share despite the fact that we do not all share the same religious beliefs, is a more complicated thing than we can convey simply by citing Article VI.  If we took the logic of “no religious test” as far as it will go in the decision-making of voters, we would be saying that it is somehow forbidden (morally at least, not legally) to bring one’s faith into the public square and make it relevant to one’s voting behavior, or one’s assessment of candidates.  And that would pit the “no religious test” clause against the “free exercise” of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Let me pause to be clear about another thing.  I am not defending the particular use of his religious freedom that Rev. Jeffress saw fit to exercise in his comments the other day.  Like every freedom, religious freedom can be ill-used, and it certainly was in this case.  So Mona Charen, Bill Bennett, and Bill McGurn are quite right to rebuke Jeffress.  They are quite right as well to excoriate anti-Mormonism from any quarter–and it is stronger on the left than on the right, as McGurn notes–as our own modern brand of Know-Nothingism.  Mitt Romney’s faith should be no barrier to his nomination for and election to the presidency.  In fact, given the moral and patriotic affinities among traditional Catholics and Jews, evangelical Protestants, and Mormons, Romney’s faith should be a plus in this respect.  The reason the left hates Mormons is because of what they have in common with faithful evangelicals, Jews, and Catholics–devotion to the sanctity of life, the preservation of marriage and family, and the high importance of religious freedom.  Show me a good Mormon, and I’m readier to vote for him than for a bad Catholic.

But precisely in connection with these common threads in the social fabric of conservative religious folks, we would be better off talking about the right use, and the misuse, of our religious freedom, rather than taking misleading shortcuts through the “no religious test” clause.  All of us in the coalition really do want to apply one kind of “religious test” or another, after all.  Even Abe Lincoln had his own version of such a test.  When he was running for Congress in 1846, his opponent, a local Illinois pastor, put it about that Lincoln was a Deist and no good Christian should vote for him.  Lincoln replied in a handbill he published in the district: “That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”  And then he added this kicker, which amounted to a pretty good “religious test” of his own:

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

Lincoln’s test is good enough for me.


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