By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Thinking about “the religious test”

Chris Lehmann repeats an oft-heard fallacy in an interview conducted by Ken Silverstein for Reacting to Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s appearances with evangelical minister Rick Warren last Saturday, Lehmann says:

The only important issue about Saddleback is that the Constitution specifically forbids any religious test for office, so why are you having an evangelical minister asking the two candidates about their relationship to Christ? But the people who are in charge of delivering useful information to the public about the process have no historical frame of reference. They literally don’t know what they’re doing.

Lehmann’s right about what the Constitution says regarding a religious test, but he suggests that it somehow applies to the media and to voters. It does not. Here’s the exact language, from Article VI:

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 Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

That’s pretty clear: the government may not establish a religious test for candidates. If Congress were to pass a law stating that only believing Christians may run for president, or that practicing Muslims may not, then that would be unconstitutional under Article VI.

If, on the other hand, a voter decides he will not consider any candidate who isn’t an evangelical, that’s not only his right, but it’s perfectly in accord with both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. Likewise, Rick Warren is free to invite the candidates in for a talk; the candidates are free to accept or decline; and the media are free to cover it or not.

Needless to say, this is a relevant issue, as Mitt Romney remains the subject of some speculation as to whether John McCain will choose him as his running mate. Some evangelicals have made it clear that they would object vociferously because Romney is a Mormon. That sentiment may be offensive to you and me, but it’s not offensive in the least to the Constitution.

If you think about it, we’ve all got our religious tests. Would you vote for a so-called Christian who believes we should hasten the Apocalypse through nuclear war? Of course you wouldn’t. The Constitution says such a person can run for office. It doesn’t say you have to vote for him. Neither does it say the press and the public can’t make an issue of his beliefs.

The Constitution is supposed to be a check on the government, not on the people.

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  1. Bill Baar

    It’s amazing how many people can’t quite get this.Warren not my favorite preacher but the guy did an excellant job getting two men to reveal themselves to voters in insightful ways. We saw the strengths and weakness of both candidates and these interviews probably told everyone all they need to know to cast informed votes.Warren did a stellar job and in no way did anything unconstitutional or infringed on the seperation of Church and State.

  2. Doug Shugarts

    As an athiest, I find it insulting that presidential candidates believe they must pander to right-wing Christian evangelicals. But as a voter, I am glad that the Warren interview aired on national TV. Now I can better judge the absurdity of each man’s religious views and decide if either candidate is likely to govern by reason.Doug Shugarts

  3. itchy

    As a Christian, I find it insulting that elitist atheists find all of us absurd and unable to reason; associate Christianity with “right-wing” political beliefs; address us as a uniform group of people instead of as individuals; find all our beliefs and values instantly dismissable just because some of them are associated with traditional Christian doctrine; presume that their beliefs alone are rooted in reason, when in fact their values are rooted in some form of ideology as well; and consider all political speech that addresses one or more of our political concerns “pandering”. This type of comment, Shugarts, confirms my long held belief that there is no more odious person in public life than the militant atheist.

  4. Marc Larocque

    Some atheists are just a bunch of self-loving jerks who have no hope. Most are cool and humanistic, though.I think there are truths in all the major religions. MLK would have never made so much leeway in the civil rights movement without an appeal to God.Who is going to be the first atheist commander-in-chief?

  5. Marc Larocque

    And by leeway I meant headway. My bad. He never would havce made as much progress through the civil rights movement without an overt appeal to God, is what I meant to opine.

  6. Derek

    Dwight Eisenhower was not baptized until nearly two weeks after he took office in 1953, at age 62 — can you imagine a president doing this in 2008? Can you imagine mainstream America even considering a presidential candidate electable if he or she hadn’t purported to have been baptized? I can’t, not in this election. I agree: fortunately, this is a decision for Americans, not the American government, to make. Unfortunately, this is the decision most have made.

  7. Steve

    A Gallup poll last year revealed that Americans are less likely to vote for an atheist for president than an African-American, a Mormon, a woman, a Jew, or a homosexual.But yeah, there’s no constitutional religious requirement.

  8. Doug Shugarts

    Itchy:Call me ‘odious’ if you like, but the fact remains that we athiests are few in number and must stake our claims where we can.Why do you call me an ‘elitist?’ And why do you think I find your beliefs instantly ‘dismissable,’ a word that I can’t find in the dictionary.I fully recognize that I live in a world where war and genocide are the enduring testaments of religious faith. That is the cross that athiests must bear.Why do you object when I analyze a ‘conversation,’ hosted by a far-right religious leader, and draw conclusions about the fitness of either candidate to govern me? And can you not recognize that many of our country’s failed foreign and domestic policies are shrouded in the tired rhetoric of right-wing Christianity?I don’t blame you for not using your real name.Doug Shugarts

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