Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the Spirit of the Religious Test Clause of Article VI

The Tea Party movement, and an increasing number of members of Congress, has invoked the Constitution as supporting efforts to move the nation a long ways to the right.  Last year members of Congress made a big production of reading orally the text of the Constitution—as though a single act of studious reverence could serve as a renewal of fidelity to following the Constitution.  So one important issue without doubt is whether the current movement advocating political conservatism embodies real commitment to constitutional principles. At least one sign of the seriousness of that commitment is to move beyond the rhetoric on behalf of states’ rights, and the tendency to assume that opposition to federal health care reflects a commitment to constitutional liberty, to discover whether contemporary conservatives pay serious attention to the principles underlying the Constitution.

At least one problem confronting many conservatives who fly the banner of fidelity to the Constitution is their rather clear infidelity to the principle of religious pluralism reflected in the First Amendment Religion Clauses and the Religious Test Clause of Article VI of the Constitution.  Article VI clearly states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  The constitutional founders were committed to the free exercise of religion, and this commitment was reflected in the ban on religious tests.  A number of states, even after independence was declared, retained religious tests for office, some excluding Catholics, some excluding Jews, and some excluding atheists.  The federal Constitution recognized that these legal requirements were contrary to the nation’s commitment to religious freedom.  See Gerard V. Bradley, The No Religious Test Clause and the Constitution of Religious Liberty:  A Machine That Has Gone of Itself, 37 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 674 (1987).

Contrast the purpose and spirit of the Religious Test Clause with the religious right’s use of religion in the republican race for the presidential nomination.  Franklin Graham—son of famed evangelist Billy Graham—stated that “[m]ost Christians would not recognize Mormons as part of the Christian faith.”  Other prominent evangelical leaders, such as Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, have similarly stated that Mormonism is not Christian at all. For a balanced assessment of such carping about “who” is, and is not, Christian, one might consider a recent publication, “The Jewish Week,” suggesting that “[t]he injection of religious biases in this year’s campaigns has been poisonous.”  It notes that a pattern has emerged: four years ago some charged Obama with being a “secret Muslim,” or with following a hateful preacher.  Even now both Graham and Land have indicated that they will overcome their religious bias and vote for Romney should he become the nominee.  “In other words, they hate Obama more than they hate Mormonism.”

Some go even further.   At least one evangelical publication, in March of 2012, contended that a vote for Romney would mean that “Republicans approve being Mormon and not Christian,” concluding that “[t]his is a betrayal of the Christian faith.”  Such views from the pulpit and relevant scripts makes a difference to true believers.  One article reported that one “longtime worshiper” was asked why she supported Santorum rather than Romney:  “Mormonism,” was her response because “I don’t believe that Romney’s a Christian.”  One disquieting feature of such tendencies is that, of the 25% of those polled by the Pew Center who “say that they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate,” one cannot but wonder how much they even know about the Mormon religion.  One news article observed that “ignorance is the parent of fear,” and anyone in the Western United States knows that the “tall tales” and mythologies about the Mormons abound.  One article correctly observed that frequent perceptions of the Mormon faith “are troubling in a country that values religious freedom.”

Now the Religious Test Clause forbids making a particular religious belief or commitment a legal requirement for holding public office; but it is also true, of course, that it does not itself legally prohibit citizens from basing their vote on a candidate’s religion. At the same time, however, one who asserts that voting for an otherwise qualified Mormon, for no reason other than his religious beliefs—and that to act otherwise is “a betrayal of the Christian Faith”—has simply missed the point of the Religious Test Clause.  One who holds such a view with real conviction would vote favorably for eliminating the clause and including a ban on allowing Mormons to hold public office.

It is rather obvious that Latter day Saints (“Mormons” is just a nickname) hold to significantly different beliefs and doctrines than evangelical Christians.  The American founders knew enough to understand that it is quite easy for people of substantially different beliefs to find the beliefs of others to be preposterous, even inconceivable.  Little wonder that they came to believe so strongly in religious pluralism.  Thomas Jefferson wrote to an association of Baptists, agreeing with them “that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God” and “that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”  (Truly “beliefs” in the nature of stated intentions about support for public policies are quite relevant to the voting decision; but beliefs in religious teachings and doctrines are precisely what lie between people and their God, and they are the beliefs that Jefferson and his co-founders viewed as irrelevant to determining an individual’s qualification for office.)   It is worth comparing Jefferson’s views—a believer in the separation of church and state—with  those of Rick Santorum.

In 1960 Jack Kennedy answered opponents of a Catholic running for President by affirming his commitment to the separation of church and state.  An implication of that separation was that “no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”  Senator Santorum said he “almost threw up” after reading Kennedy’s speech based on his reading it to preclude the church having any influence on matters of government.  He subsequently expressed regret at the “throw up” line, but never confronted the claim of others that nothing Kennedy said in the speech—beyond insisting on an “absolute” separation of church and state—suggested that he thought churches (and their religious teachings) were to have absolutely no influence on government.  Kennedy’s speech, of course, grew from stated concerns that he would take orders from the pope when he was President.  The portion that Santorum just ignored was the idea that one simply should not be “denied public office” based on religious views that differ from the voters.  Contrast Kennedy’s view with Santorum’s.  When Romney ran for President four years ago, Santorum thought it quite sufficient that judging Romney based on his religious beliefs would not be like rejecting Obama “because he is black.”  Obama “was born black,” while Romney is Mormon because “he accepts the beliefs of the Mormon faith.”  By evaluating such beliefs, then, one could properly “make inferences about his judgment and character, good or bad.”

The questions are these: (1) are Santorum’s views reconcilable with those expressed either by Thomas Jefferson or Jack Kennedy?; (2) if I, as a voter, base my selection on an inference of bad judgment or character because I reject a candidate’s religious beliefs, am I holding that candidate to account “for his faith or his worship” in contradiction of the views of Jefferson?; (3) if I base my vote on whether the candidate holds sound religious views, am I in effect creating a religious test for holding national office?  (4) if I’m willing to vote against Romney because I don’t think he’s a Christian, do I have a sound and principled reason to think that early constitutions that precluded Catholics—like Santorum—from holding public office were so inappropriate as to justify inclusion of the Religious Test Clause?  Among southern evangelicals I have met and chatted with, it is hard to say whether more were anti-Mormon or anti-Catholic.  Perhaps Peggy Noonan is right in suggesting that the evangelical endorsement of Santorum—more than fifty years after Kennedy—is itself a sign of some progress.  That Romney may get the nomination is arguably another such sign. But I think it still fair to conclude that we do not seem to be entering the “post-religious bias” era any more than the election of Obama meant that we were entering the post-racial era.

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