Patricia Nell Warren

"The Religious Test" -- More on Scary Religion

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 01, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, Politics
Tags: American history, Bill of Rights, established religion, freedom of religion, intolerance, President's religion, religious test, U.S. Constitution

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.

Today's Challenge

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.
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More on the extremist Third Wave religious movement that Sarah Palin is part of.


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Very good article about the subject. As someone who adheres to a non-Abrahamaic cultural faith the freedom of conscience is of great import to myself and my people. I worry about my five kids as these neo-cons and religious fanatics try to shape a world without us.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 1, 2008 10:18 AM

I would also suggest that far left persons also tell many lies about American history. It is remarkable how "churchy" America remains when you consider that "stated" church attendance in much of Europe has dwindled down to under 5-10%, but in America remains at approximately 40%. This means we are either really quite religious or more hypocritical about it.

Thanks Patricia

Thanks for the insightful comment, Robert. Yes, it's true that there's a gap between European stats and U.S. stats on church attendance. That's because Europeans are more familiar with the horrible injustices that result from state religion. They have lived through centuries of horrible wars in their effort to lift the burden of state religion. From the Dutch Revolt of 1568-1648 through the French Revolution to the revolutions of the 19th century, peoples were throwing off church-based theocracies and establishing republics.

The French Revolution had such a deep anti-clerical impact that France is a very secular-spirited country to this day. Even in Spain, with its long history of deep-dyed Catholic conservatism, the Church finally wore out its welcome. When I lived in Spain in the 1960s, the fascist government was still in power, but everybody knew change was coming, and only 20 percent of the Spanish people were practicing their religion.

It's interesting how our many of our colonial ancestors, simply by stepping across the Atlantic, lost touch with the festering religious problems of the "old country." Many Americans today are still living in a bubble, where this issue is concerned. They listen placidly to the rhetoric of the religious right, and have no idea what daily life would be like if the righters have their way with our government.

In my darker moments, I think that America will have to live through one of those ghastly civil wars about religion, which will be fought house to house, as it was in Europe, before they finally get it -- on the personal level -- about what it really means when you tell another person that they have to live their lives under your religion.

Actually Robert the 40% you gave is quite the stretch.Take most cities or towns in the usa and compare the number of churches and seating numbers to population there simply isn't anywheres near enough seating for 40% of the population even figuring for double services.Look at area's with mega churches sure the churches have huge member numbers but compared to their respective area's population numbers their actually a small part of the population.Looking at the Republican party the number I've most heard is that 20% of the party are of the right wing church goer variety.The Republican party has about 1/3 of the voting aged Americans in it.My dad is a minister and we've talked about this before and both agreed the actual number of church going Americans is less than 10% and is probably closer to the 5% number quoted to European churches.Now if you ask how many Americans believe there is a god or simply have Christian leanings and beliefs the number goes way up above 50% of the population.Thank you for writing this Patricia and it pointed to what I believe that most on the right have confederate states rights beliefs.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 2, 2008 5:01 AM

The key word is "stated."

Thanks for writing this important article. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
This of course is called the "Establishment Clause" and it is concerned with ensuring that the government does not coerce any individual to conform to a specific religious view.
Congress violated this basic principle in enacting DOMA almost explicitly. The Committee Report, for instance, states that there is a governmental interest in "promoting heterosexuality," which is furthered by "maintaining a preferred societal statute of heterosexual marriage." Thus DOMA attempts to coerce people into accepting the traditional, religious conception that homosexuality is immoral, contrary to what other religious view holds. DOMA was motivated by a religious purpose, and its effect has been to unconstitutionally establish religion. DOMA's purpose and effect were both the endorsement of one religious view to the exclusion of all others. Finally, DOMA unsconstitutionally compels the acceptance of a specific religious belief.

Nor are there any state laws, that I know of, that require religious tests for governor or other state offices.

Unless I am very mistaken, I understand that 8 states (TX, AR, MA, MD, NC, PA, SC and TN) still have constitutional clauses where an official may be "excluded from holding office" if she/he does not "acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being."

For example, the Texas Constitution (Article 1, Section 4) reads: 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.

Arkansas Constitution, Article 19 Section 1 of the 1874 constitution: "No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any court."

Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights: Article 1, Section 4: "No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth."

As an atheist, I cannot help but see these as religious tests. Some of them even go so far as to exclude people of faith who don't believe in a personal creator god. I don't know that these state constitutional clauses would stand up to a SCOTUS challenge (although, with the current court, who knows?), but to say that these are only a matter for the history books is probably wring.

You're right, Jere...and this is a subject for another article. These vestigial laws do border on religious tests, though they are less specific than the type I'm talking about, and are probably seldom, if ever, enforced today. I'd be interested in hearing about any instances where they WERE enforced, and would like to do a piece about this.

I share your outrage at these laws, however, and wish that some legal actions would be brought to force them off the books -- though I wonder how successful they'd be in the current climate, especially with the judiciary creeping to the right.

The Arkansas clause includes witnesses in court. This issue has come up for me personally -- in federal district court, among others, when I was testifying on the CDA case in 1997. I refuse to put my hand on the Bible to swear in court, and am aware that legal precedent allows me to simply swear to tell the truth without the Bible.

Last but not least, the Pledge of Allegiance puts all of us to a kind of "test" every day, with atheists and agnostics (yourself included, I'm sure) leaving out the "under God" part. I always say "under Goddess and God," because that's my view...but I say it as loud as I can, so the people around me hear it.

Unfortunately, a case could be made that, by not specifying a primary religious viewpoint, such as christian, Judaic or Islamic; DOMA squeaks by the establishment clause.

No doubt the justices of the Supreme court would use such reasoning to uphold it, since the act does not establish the specific religious viewpoint as the only one that can be used. All of the big three have proscriptions in their scriptures concerning homosexuality so it is not only from christianity that such ideas come.

Diddlygrl
The catch is that most co-sponsors of DOMA in both the House and the Senate referred to Judeo-Christian beliefs in their statements arguing for the bill's passage. Representative Hutchinson stated his belief "that marriage is a covenant established by God wherein one man and one woman are united for the purpose of founding and maintaing a family. Most argued along these Abrahamic religious lines. (Judeo, Islamic, Christian).
Many beliefs in America were not represented that are in favor of same-sex marriage. Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists, Unitarians, some left wing Christians such as Episcopalians, gay churches ect.

All of the big three have proscriptions in their scriptures concerning homosexuality so it is not only from christianity that such ideas come.

Truth is, diddlygrl, that the clearest proscriptions against gay sex (anal intercourse specifically) occur in the Old Testament, and are thus Judaic in origin.

The usual New Testament passages that allegedly prohibit homosexuality all have been challenged by respected scholars as being cases of biased and incorrect translations from the original Greek.

Some of them are enigmatic to this day; for example, there is still no universal consensus on exactly what St. Paul meant when he used the Greek word "arsenokoitai", a Greek word so rare that we know of only five or six occurrences of it in even the secular Greek texts of the day. Several modern translations have translated this word as "homosexual" --- even though we know that the Greeks of that day did not have a word that had exactly the modern, clinical meaning of "homosexual".

It is indeed true that the translations in the new testament from both the greek and aramaic sources is at best, semi-eductated guesses.

The problem is however that we can argue all we want about it with the religio-facists, and they will just smile and fall back on the "inspired word of god" argument; Those who translated and codified the passages in the new testament had been "inspired" by the spirit,(of the lord, not prejudice of course.) and thus the words are the infallible representation and expression of the word of god.

See how wonderfully that works to cover their respective asses? I mean who can argue with the "inspired word of god"? I have played that game before, having come from a southern baptist background.

From the rational viewpoint, it is of course as bankrupt as their supposed morals. But when arguing matters of "faith", reason is doomed to failure against the passion of belief.

Our Founding Fathers wrestled with the issue of separation of church and state and the "wall of separation" was found to be the wisest course to follow. As example:
"Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries."
-- Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808) ME 16:320
The Youtube clips of Sarah Palin giving witness at her church present a rather terrifying picture of someone who could be in a position of leading our country. The "end" could, indeed, be near.

The history of religion in the United States is a long and fascinating tale. I hope you'll consider continuing this series; people are finally starting to comment and pay attention! ;)

Thanks, Bil. Yes, I'll continue the series, as it relates to the election. There are many fascinating -- and terrifying -- facets to explore.