Chris Lehmann repeats an oft-heard fallacy in an interview conducted by Ken Silverstein for Harpers.org. 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.