The True Meaning of a Religious Test
Ben Carson's recent statements about Islam and the U.S. presidency have garnered a wide array of commentary. Most of the remarks have been quite critical, with even some conservatives taking Carson to task. Predictably, many of those critical of Carson point to the Constitution's "no religious test" clause. Also predictably, many who are making this argument completely ignore that Carson was not advocating for such a "religious test."
Interestingly, every one of the American colonies did have a "religious test." What's more, these tests continued long after the United States was formed. The U.S. Constitution went into effect on June 21, 1788. An excerpt (Article 7, Section 2) from the 1796 Tennessee constitution reads, "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State."
Article 11, Section 4 of the very same constitution says, "[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state." Within the same state constitution, there resides a religious requirement for holding public office along with a prohibition against a "religious test." Therefore, we can conclude that, in the era of our founding, many believed that requiring a belief in God for elected officials did not constitute a "religious test."
Likewise, Article 1, Section 4 of the Texas (who didn't enter the Union until 1845) constitution said, "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."
The constitution of the state of Mississippi (1817, Article 14, Section 265) states, "No person who denies the being of God or a future state of rewards and punishments shall hold any office in the civil department of the State." More tamely, Article 37 of the Maryland constitution says, "[N]o religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution."
It wasn't until 1961, in Torcaso v. Watkins, that the Supreme Court rendered such clauses unenforceable. Again, interestingly the Court did not base its ruling on the "no religious test" clause. Justice Hugo Black wrote, "Appellant also claimed that the State's test oath requirement violates the provision of Art. VI of the Federal Constitution that 'no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.' Because we are reversing the judgment on other grounds, we find it unnecessary to consider appellant's contention that this provision applies to state as well as federal offices."
Instead, the Court ruled that requiring a belief in God to hold public office violated the First and Fourteenth amendments. In other words, the Supreme Court ruled that such requirements were a violation of the "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment.
Mr. Carson was not advocating for a government "religious test." Rather, he was implying that voters exercise a personal religious test as they enter the ballot booth. This offends today's liberals, which is a great indication that one has simply told the truth. Also, what Ben Carson declared is not very different from what John Jay – Founding Father, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, and the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court – said in an 1816 letter to John Murray. In fact, Jay was much more exclusive than Carson when he wrote, "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers."
Imagine that! Not only did John Jay proclaim that Americans should prefer Christians for their leaders, but approximately four decades after the creation of the United States, one of the most significant U.S. founders considered this a "Christian nation." If such a conclusion is even hinted at today, the (often godless) secularists who dominate the modern left and the mainstream media howl like Highball the hound.
In spite of the meme perpetuated by today's left, John Jay was far from alone in his conclusion on America's founding. (However, many on both sides of the argument frequently misunderstand what is meant by a "Christian nation.") In fact, it is not only American Christians who make such claims.
After the victory over Great Britain, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both served the freshly birthed United States of America as ministers in Europe. Quoting from David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography John Adams:
Of the multiple issues in contention between Britain and the new United States of America, and that John Adams had to address as minister, nearly all were holdovers from the Treaty of Paris, agreements made but not resolved, concerning debts, the treatment of Loyalists, compensation for slaves and property confiscated by the British, and the continued presence of British troops in America. All seemed insoluble. With its paper money nearly worthless, its economy in shambles, the United States was desperate for trade[.] … To Adams the first priority must be to open British ports to American ships.
During this time, Adams and Jefferson corresponded regularly. According to McCullough (emphasis mine):
In eight months' time, from late May 1785, when Adams first assumed his post in London, until February 1786, he wrote 28 letters to Jefferson, and Jefferson wrote a nearly equal number in return…Increasingly their time and correspondence was taken up by concerns over American shipping in the Mediterranean and demands for tribute made by the Barbary States of North Africa—Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco. To insure their Mediterranean trade against attacks by the 'Barbary pirates," the nations of Europe customarily made huge cash payments…On a chill evening in February came what Adams took to be an opening. At the end of a round of ambassadorial 'visits,' he stopped to pay his respects to a new member of the diplomatic corps in London, His Excellency Abdrahaman, envoy of the sultan of Tripoli…The conversation turned to business. America was a great nation, declared His Excellency, but unfortunately a state of war existed between America and Tripoli. Adams questioned how that could be…[Adams was told that], without a treaty of peace there could be no peace between Tripoli and America. His Excellency was prepared to arrange such a treaty…Were a treaty delayed, it would be more difficult to make. A war between Christian and Christian was mild, prisoners were treated with humanity; but, warned His Excellency, a war between Muslim and Christian could be horrible.
Thus, here we have a foreign diplomat – a Muslim diplomat – during the infancy of the United States, recognizing that the U.S. was indeed a "Christian" nation.
Lastly, Ben Carson, accused of running afoul of the Constitution with his conclusion about Muslims and the U.S. presidency, has also been labeled a "bigot," accused of discrimination, and branded an Islamophobe. This is nothing more than the perverse and foolish liberal notion of "tolerance" at work. After all, as we do in practically every other area of our lives (marriage, etc.), we all "discriminate" when we vote.
It's another sad indictment on our media and our culture that Barack Obama, who advocates for infanticide, declares that he wouldn't want his daughters "punished with a baby," and offers a "God bless you" to those responsible for the death of millions of the most innocent among us, is elected and re-elected leader of the free world. Yet when Ben Carson casts a suspicious eye toward those who dominate the most dangerous and backward parts of the world, he is unfit for office.
Trevor Grant Thomas: At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason. www.trevorgrantthomas.com Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World. email@example.com