The Founders Trusted the People, Not Religious Tests

The Founders Trusted the People, Not Religious Tests

One of the great innovations our founding fathers built into our Constitution was a ban on religious tests. They had seen too much. They knew history too well. They would not have their government controlled by any one religion. They would not require candidates for federal offices to align with narrow religious beliefs. So in 1787, after much debate and crafting of language, our founders gave us Article VI, clause 3, of the US Constitution, which reads in part, “No religious tests shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

It was a break with history. Most Americans at the time understood and celebrated. Chief Justice Joseph Story, the premier jurist in our early nation, exulted, “The Catholic and the Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils without any inquisition into their faith or mode of worship.”

In time, with the advent of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, this ban on religious tests would apply to the states as well as the federal government. We should be grateful for this guarantee of religious liberty. It meant that no one religion or set of religious beliefs could keep all others from, in Justice Story’s words, sitting “at the common table of national councils.” This has become a vital pillar in the American system.

Yet it has also led to something the founders never intended. It has contributed to a national reticence to consider the religious views of political candidates. It has become a mood as much as a thought: Don’t bother people about religion when they’re campaigning for office. Yet this is tragic, for it is exactly the opposite of what the founding fathers intended.

The truth is that our founders felt safe in banning religious tests from government because they trusted the people to decide about matters of religion. The people would examine the religions of their candidates. The people would consider the influence of religion before they placed their votes, the founders expected.

Consider the words of Richard Dobbs Spaight, a signer of the Constitution.

As to the subject of religion . . . no power is given to the general government to interfere with it at all . . . No sect is preferred to another. Every man has a right to worship the Supreme Being in the manner he thinks proper. No test is required. All men of equal capacity and integrity are equally eligible to offices . . . I do not suppose an infidel, or any such person will ever be chosen to any office unless the people themselves are of the same opinion.

Here we see a founding father completely trusting the people with decisions about the religions of political candidates. This man even envisioned the possibility of an “infidel” gaining office—something clearly abhorrent to him—but it would happen, he said, only if the people chose. He was willing to leave the matter in their hands.

So was Samuel Johnson, a member of the Continental Congress, the US senate, and a governor of North Carolina.

It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans, pagans, etc., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President or other high office, but in one of two cases. First, if the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do. Another case is if any persons of such descriptions should, notwithstanding their religion, acquire the confidence and esteem of the people of America by their good conduct and practice of virtue, they may be chosen.

Once again, a founding father envisioned the election of candidates who held faiths far removed from his own. Still, he believed it was for the people to decide. Religious matters were in their hands.

Clearly, our national parents did not wish us to ignore the religious lives of political candidates. They wanted us to do what mere religious tests could not. They wanted us to ask the important questions. They wanted us pay attention, to study, to examine, and to decide. They wanted us to take religion seriously and make it a factor in our choices.

This is a good moment for us to recall the intentions of the founding generation. We are facing a US presidential election that is as infused with religious beliefs as any in our history. We are also living at a time when an American president has to both understand religion and act in response to its impact on global affairs. There has never been a more important time for Americans to take up the challenge of our founders: Understand religion. Know it in the lives of your candidates. Vote accordingly.

It is the responsibility that falls to a wise and a free people.

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