Should There be a "Religious Test"?


Article VI of the United States Constitution reads, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”.  And I couldn’t be more in agreement, if this plank is understood correctly: no person should be barred from running for elective office, nor from serving in that office if elected, on the basis of his/her religious preference or lack thereof.  Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, as Mormons for instance, have every right to run for any office they choose, and to serve if elected.  For that matter, I would wholeheartedly oppose any effort to bar an atheist, say, from running or serving.

That doesn’t mean that I’d ever vote for an atheist.

See, the problem we are seeing these days is that there are a number of folks who want to extend this idea of “no religious test” to the choices individual Americans make with regard to candidates for office.  Here’s an example:

Obama and the Religious Test Clause

And this, of course, is clearly wrong—again, understood correctly.  Allow me to explain.

People, notably secularists, but also many “people of faith”, want to use the term “religion” in what to me seems a skewed way.  Disclaimer: I don’t even particularly care for the term itself, because of its rampant misuse—but I won’t use this space for a rant thereupon.  Here’s the deal: a “religion” entails, though it is not limited to, a worldview, a particular viewpoint of reality.  If it is taken seriously, rather than taken in a Nancy Pelosi-type way, religion involves the shaping of people’s core values and understanding of the nature of the universe, the fundamental nature of human beings, and everything that flows from those perceptions.  Protestations notwithstanding, it is impossible, again at least for any politician who is serious about his/her faith, for that faith not to ultimately color that person’s approach to governing.

Now, people who don’t really understand what “religion” is about will often either under- or over-react to religion’s role in the way a candidate governs.  They will tend to focus on overt things rather than underlying principles.  For instance, some have railed about so-called “Religious Right” politicians wanting to set up the United States as a “theocracy”.  By using this term, they either misunderstand what a “theocracy” entails, or misunderstand what motivates most on the “Religious Right”, or more likely, both.  On the other hand, they sometimes under-react by dismissing concerns regarding their pet politicians, by assuring us that there will be no attempt at mass conversion, or hyper-meddling, by the representatives of a candidate’s church.  Said Mitt Romney four years ago, “Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”  Thanks, Mitt, but that’s not what we’re concerned about…

What people ought to be rightly concerned about, and what ought to influence their votes, is the view of reality that a given religion espouses, and of course the degree to which a given candidate gives evidence of agreement with that worldview. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are Baptists, and it’s fair to say that at points, their positions often reflected, not your great-grandmother’s Southern Baptist Convention, but the neo-orthodox version of Southern Baptist theology that was, thankfully, repudiated by the rank-and-file members during the often-rancorous SBC wars of the eighties and early-nineties.  Though I was a Baptist during both of Mr. Carter’s runs, and the first of Mr. Clinton’s, I enthusiastically voted instead for a member of the Disciples of Christ (who ironically held many positions which sharply contrasted with this liberal denomination’s stances) twice, and an Episcopalian once, (albeit somewhat reluctantly).  Now, it is probably fair to say that I wasn’t really applying a “religious test” in those cases; I certainly wasn’t preferring candidates from “my tribe” above those of another.  And yet, the beliefs—the “religious beliefs”, if you will—of each candidate made a difference in my vote.

To those who would decry using a “religious test” as part of our voting considerations, I must protest.  What of an atheist who ran?  Would his atheism not likely tell us a lot about how that candidate viewed reality?  Of course…and I’d not (knowingly, at least) vote for an atheist.  What if Tom Cruise ran for office?  Would his Scientology not be a telling factor in his belief structure?  Of course it would, and under no circumstances would I vote for a Scientologist.

And this, of course, brings us to Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.  Mormon faith is well outside the mainstream of evangelical Christian thinking.  Mormons often agree, politically, with positions taken by conservatives, and for that, I am thankful.  Have I, personally, reached a decision with regard to, particularly, Mitt Romney?  No, as of yet, I have not.  But to say that his chosen faith, the beliefs that Mormons hold, the stances and positions that flow from it, and the questions it may or may not raise about how Mr. Romney’s mind works, ought have zero bearing on decisions I make in the voting booth, is in my judgment preposterous.  Of course a candidate’s faith matters, because a candidate’s beliefs matter, and a candidate’s actions which naturally flow from a faith taken seriously matter, and a candidate’s positions, which naturally flow from that faith, matter.  And evaluating such are fair game, and ever shall be.

And being concerned about such things—and voting in accord with our concerns—categorically does not violate either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution’s proscription of a “religious test”.



  1. Graham on November 26, 2011 at 4:38 am

    I did specifically vote against Christian candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections- the Christian People’s Alliance/Christian Party made a party broadcast which told a big porky (that the proportional representation system used would make a vote for them have 4 times the impact of a vote for a major party) which turned me against voting for them.

  2. Blake on December 8, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I’ve enjoyed perusing your blog. I take your argument here as further evidence of the need of Good Civics classes in our schools. Forget Social Studies, bring back Civics!

    Let’s teach our students a comprehensive understanding of our way of government. I’m tired of people whining that our system lacks “democracy” and your example above of a wrong understanding of a Religious Test reminds me of those who scream “Free Speech” when they want to escape the consequences of their speech.

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