As a lover of history, I ponder how religion has become a burning issue in the campaign -- though fewer people are daring to discuss it now that Sarah Palin is on the scene. The right grumbles about a religious test for President, i.e. they think there should be one. At the present time, no federal law bars Mitt Romney from the presidency because he is a Mormon. If Obama were a Muslim, as alleged, he couldn't be barred from office on that basis. Neither could a Wiccan, or Jehovah's Witness, or Christian Scientist, or anybody else whose religion might be controversial with some voters. Nor are there any state laws, that I know of, that require religious tests for governor or other state offices.
However, this was not the case when our nation first came into being in 1776!
Religious righters tell a lot of bald-faced lies about American history. But they're right about one thing -- in most of the original 13 states, Americans used to face a legal test for Christianity before they could serve in elected office.
So tension between states' rights and federal rights is an old one. And a lot of the tension started with religion.
Your Hand on the Bible, Please
Among the 13 original states, most of the early constitutions (written in 1776 or thereabouts) required an electee to make a public confession of Christian belief in order to be sworn into office -- governor, legislator, etc. You had to put your hand on the Bible and swear that you believed in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. This act automatically put you in, if you were Anglican or Protestant, the two dominant religions in the colonies. But it cut out Catholics, who would not swear on the Bible in those days. It also cut out Jews, as well as any Christians who didn't believe that Christ was divine, like Unitarians.
This religious test was a cruel piece of baggage brought over from England. After a half century of bloody religious war, Queen Elizabeth I established the first religious test. It was aimed at keeping Catholics out of government -- making sure that only loyal believers of the Church of England could serve in office. Once imported to the U.S., the test was adapted for use by Protestants as well.
It's a glaring fact of our history that some of the 13 colonies were founded by religious sects who were just as intolerant as the ruling Anglicans who ran them out of England. Other colonies, like Maryland and Virginia, had to establish the Church of England as a condition of getting their royal charter. While a few colonies -- notably Rhode Island and the Quakers' Pennsylvania -- allowed a respectable degree of religious tolerance, most of the colonies had a strict established religion. Meaning that every citizen in the state had to pay tithes to that ruling church and educate their children in it. If you didn't, you were in big trouble. In Massachusetts, you could be punished, even exiled or executed (as the Quakers were), if you weren't an obedient Puritan. And so on.
So when these intolerant colonies became independent little states in 1776, they went on leveraging intolerance at their polls.
By the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, these state constitutions had been operating for a decade. Out of respect for state stubbornness about religion, the Constitution writers didn't step on ouchy state toes. However, at the federal level, the writers firmly rejected the English principle of a religious test. Article VI, Section III required that the President and members of Congress swear an oath to support the Constitution, but said further: "...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
If our U.S. Constitution had adopted a federal test, George Washington might not have been elected as our first President! It was widely known that he belonged to the Freemasons, who were detested by Anglicans and Protestants alike. These factions would have used it as a reason to disqualify Washington.
"Testing" the Bill of Rights
Indeed, our national leaders saw that religious disagreement could disunify the U.S.; they didn't want a repeat of the English centuries of horrible civil wars over religion. With several varieties of Christianity represented in the new nation, it would become increasingly difficult for our country to do business -- and that business included electing people whose authority everyone would respect. So in 1791, when our founders added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, they put that now-famous clause in the First Amendment that says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
How did the religion-mongering states ever agree to ratify the Bill of Rights? Because the Bill was originally understood to apply only to the federal government. So the states were allowed to go on their merry mongering way for several more decades, holding onto their religious tests. Some states actively persecuted inhabitants of any religion that they didn't like. By 1820, however, the feds were pressuring for an end to state theocracy. In 1868, after the Civil War was fought over the issue of states' rights as it related to slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment finally leveraged the Bill of Rights onto the states, with all its protections of personal liberties. Some states weren't happy about this, but they had to go along.
Only after the Fourteenth Amendment became law, did the old stateside "religious tests" fall from use. Serving in state and local office finally become legally possible for members of any religion -- Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, etc. etc. as well as members of any minority Christian religions who don't recognize the Trinity or divinity of Christ.
The moral of the story is -- our nation gradually rejected the idea of a state Christianity because our collective wisdom told us that it wouldn't work. This is a fact that the religious right simply refuse to see. They keep wanting to go back to Square A, when Square A would have grown us into something like the Holy American Empire.
The bigoted post-colonial state constitutions remain as a dark landmark in our history -- a starting point of our long toiling journey to democracy. They're available for reading at the Avalon Project, which is a magnificent digital library maintained by the Yale Law School. It contains every historical document important to progress and enlightenment throughout Western history, from Plato's Republic through the Magna Carta, to all the declarations relating to U.S. independence and growing pains. Reading this primal stuff -- hearing the voices of history talking -- really gets it across about the journey towards "democracy" -- and what a hard road it's been.
In my opinion, Americans should have to know the basics of their history like they have to know the basics of driving to get a driver's license. The fact that they don't, is what lets the religious right pull the wool over the voters' eyes today. When the righters go around fuming that "America is a Christian nation, and the President should be a Christian," they're yearning for those glory days of the religious test. All this old history is still festering in their consciousness -- which is why they have a heart attack at the idea of a Mormon or Muslim serving as President. Neither of those religions could pass a Christian religious test -- since neither teach the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus.
The old history is also why the churchy conservatives (the ones who don't object to women in public office, at any rate) have sent in a hand-picked candidate like Sarah Palin.
More on the extremist Third Wave religious movement that Sarah Palin is part of.