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What “no religious test” really means

January 5, 2012

This is a pet peeve of mine. I keep hearing candidates, pundits and commentators repeating the ridiculous falsehood that the US Constitution forbids voters from considering a candidate’s religious beliefs (or lack of belief) in deciding who to vote for or not vote for. Or we hear one candidate after another trumpet their “deep religious faith” which, if elected, will guide their every political action once in office–b ut don’t ask for details: “that would be  imposing on my religious freedom and violating the constitution!”


The ‘No Religious Test Clause’ is found in Article VI, paragraph and reads:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious tes shall ever be required as  a qualification  to any office or public trust under the United States.”

This is a restriction on government not  on voters. it means It means no office holder or office seeker, elected or appointed, can be required to  make a declaration of faith or adherence/loyalty to any church or religion. They shall swear or affirm to support the Constitution but not any church, sect, or religious beliefs.

 This clause was a clear reaction against the fact that in England, the mother country, an oath of loyalty to the established Church of England–a branch of government–was required. Catholics and non-conforming protestants were banned from offices of any kind, from universities, some professions, and deprived of many other rights. What is called Catholic Emancipation didn’t really  get started until 1829.

How could it possibly be a restriction on voters?  That is literally senseless.  Can anyone imagine it means, “Voters are forbidden to question or to think. Pay no attention to that candidate’s god behind the curtain!” How on earth could such a prohibition eve be enforced? Can you imagine a voter being brought into court on charges of having not voted for a candidate because of the candidate’s religion?

In practice, religion became an election issue early on. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson found his lack of church affiliation and attendance being made an issue by fundamentalist preachers of that time, who accused him of atheism and exhorted their congregations not to vote for him for that reason. (Perhaps they were some of the same preachers who denounced Washington for ordering smallpox vaccinations for soldiers during the Revolutionary War as “interfering with God’s will.” Tampering in God’s realm, you know). According to Allen Guelzo and other Lincoln scholars, the nickname “Honest Abe” was invented by Lincoln’s election campaign managers to counter clergymen’s denunciations of Lincoln as irreligious by asserting that while it was true  he  neither attended  nor belonged to any church, he was an upright, moral, honest man anyway.

Finally, bear in mind this “No Religious Test” clause predates even the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and represents the clear intent of the original Framers of the Constitution to avoid any connection between government office and religious beliefs or affiliations, even before any later amendments were added.

It is a restraint on government, not on voters.




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