Illustration from Scott Funk Hershey’s Errors of the Roman Catholic Church, 1894

When Are a Candidate’s Religious Beliefs Relevant?

Tests, No; Questions, Yes

As our political institutions creak under the weight of the Trump presidency, the American public has reexamined some of the hidden joists in our constitutional architecture. Examples abound. The word “emolument” has reentered the public lexicon, as Americans argue about whether or not President Trump has violated prohibitions against profiting from public office. There’s been talk of invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment, removing Trump from the presidency under the premise that he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The constitutionality of Trump’s travel ban continues to be tested in the courts. And lurking behind it all, of course, is the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s dealings with Russia—we might soon be debating whether Trump can pardon himself.

But it’s not just Trump who’s sparking constitutional controversies. Last summer, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was accused of violating the Constitution’s clumsily titled “no religious-test clause.” The infrequently invoked rule—Article VI clause 3, to be precise—stipulates that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States.” In a heated exchange with Russell Vought, Trump’s pick to fill the position of deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sanders appeared to violate the Article VI rule by implying that Vought’s religious beliefs—he’s an Evangelical Christian—disqualified him from public office.

Sanders was troubled by the language in a 2016 blog post in which Vought wrote that Muslims “have a deficient theology” and “stand condemned.” Uninterested in the theological argument Vought was making about the exclusivity of Christianity, Sanders claimed that Vought’s beliefs called into question his ability to serve the entire American public—and especially Muslim-Americans—with equal tolerance and respect.

Sanders’s comments sparked a fair amount of public backlash. Numerous commentators across the political spectrum labeled his criticism of Vought an unconstitutional religious test. And on the Friday before Congress’s Fourth of July recess, sixty-four Republican lawmakers jumped into the debate. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, they asked him to “make clear” that “no religious test will ever be required to serve in the government of the United States.”

For the Religious Right, this latest dustup will undoubtedly make for great campaign fodder. (The Family Research Council, founded by James Dobson, has already produced an ad warning its conservative Christian audience that, “In Bernie Sanders’s America, he condemns you as unfit for public service.”) But the public outrage is unlikely to lead to any formal rebuke or legal action. Though Sanders’s actions were widely criticized, there is no legal mechanism to challenge his motives. Unless we want to open every legislative decision to legal scrutiny, representatives can vote against a nominee for any reason he or she sees fit, religious or otherwise.

Still, the public reaction to Vought’s nomination hearing reveals the power of the Article VI rule in principle. Central to the American origin story, Article VI stands as proof and assurance that America is a nation founded on the doctrine of religious freedom. Though legally limited, perhaps, the clause’s symbolic and political meaning still resonates.

It’s important to note that, despite the deference owed to Article VI, Sanders has his public backers as well. Russell Vought’s religious beliefs can tell us an awful lot about what kind of public servant he’ll be, they insist. As we evaluate candidates’ moral fitness for public office, they argue, taking into account their religious values is not just legal; it’s necessary.

This debate over the constitutionality of Senator Sanders’s “religious test” is, historically speaking, nothing new. For generations, Americans have disputed to what extent religion should be relevant in the voting booth. And rightfully so. How we determine who can serve as our political representatives is no trivial matter; rather, it’s an exercise that gets to the heart of how we envision ourselves as a country and a people.

Determining how religion fits into that vision has been especially vexing. In fact, the recent flare-up over religious tests can be seen as a proxy for a much broader and more bedeviling dispute over the role religion should play in American public life. American history (not to mention our contemporary politics) is littered with examples of this debate. But to gauge how the contours of this controversy have shifted, Article VI is a valuable touchstone. Though it’s not every day that Americans spar over the meaning and reach of the Constitution’s religious-test ban, the quarrel is a persistent one, and as old as the document itself.

 

WHEN the founders met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the U.S. Constitution, a religious-test ban was not at the top of the agenda. Drafted and proposed by Charles Pinckney, a delegate from South Carolina, the clause was adopted by the Constitutional Convention with a clear majority and little debate. Some even insisted that the ban was unnecessary on account of the states’ “prevailing liberality.” But when the drafters of the Constitution returned to their home states to defend their work, they faced complaints that the document was too secular. It made no mention of God, and when coupled with the “no religious test clause,” many complained that the Constitution reflected political atheism. The Article VI ban, they argued, belittled the role that religion played in fostering a free and virtuous democratic society.

When it came to the legality of religious tests for public office, the states—and the American people—were of two minds.

Proponents of the ban framed Article VI as a promotion of religious liberty. Religious tests were the tools of tyrants, they insisted. But many Americans were still wary. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison lamented that one of the primary objections to the federal Constitution was that, “by prohibiting religious tests,” the founders had “opened a door for Jews, Turks, and infidels” to serve in public office. Americans wanted religious liberty, but many insisted that their public officials meet certain religious standards.

In fact, when the Constitution was ratified by the states in 1788, nearly every state constitution included language requiring a religious test for public officeholders. Though many states eventually struck those religious tests from their founding documents, a handful of states retained them well into the twentieth century. When it came to the legality of religious tests for public office, the states—and the American people—were of two minds.

As the states debated what they should do with their constitutionally mandated religious tests, the paths available to them were clear and enforceable. Either formal religious tests would be required of public officials, or they would be banned altogether. The same could not be said, however, for more informal religious tests baked into the democratic process itself. Many Americans were wary of, if not overtly opposed to, political representatives who ascribed to religious beliefs different from their own. For candidates outside the Protestant majority, seeking public office often proved an uphill battle. Even in states without formal religious tests, informal tests applied at the ballot box could be just as influential.

When waves of Catholic immigrants settled in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, many Protestants insisted that Catholicism—often depicted as hierarchical and authoritarian—promoted values incompatible with American democracy. Hostile organizations such as the Know Nothing Party, the American Protective Association, and the Ku Klux Klan circulated the claim that Catholic politicians would be little more than papal puppets. They openly—and sometimes violently—attempted to bar Catholics from public service. In response to this cascade of religious bigotry, many Catholics clung to the promise of Article VI.

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge stood before a crowd of one hundred thousand Catholics gathered at the U.S. Capitol and stressed the importance of the religious test clause—“the essence of freedom and toleration,” he called it. The statement was “greeted by a tumultuous outburst of enthusiasm,” the New York Times reported, the president’s comments widely interpreted as a deliberate rebuke of the KKK.

When Catholics ran for our nation’s highest office—Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960—many Catholics invoked Article VI to argue that no citizen should vote against a candidate on account of their religious beliefs. During the 1960 election, a contingent of professors at Yale Divinity School even proposed organizing a “Society for the Defense of Article VI” to combat what they called “political anti-Catholicism.”

But with each invocation of the “no religious test clause,” one could find an equally ardent assertion of its legal limitations. During the 1928 presidential election, for example (in which Smith, the governor of New York, lost to Herbert Hoover in a landslide), one Protestant group argued in the New York Times that Article VI meant “only one thing: that no legal test shall be required of any candidate.” The “free, sovereign, conscientious voter,” however, had both the right and the “responsibility” to consider the “moral and religious convictions of any candidate.” Religious belief was simply too important to dismiss out of hand.

Even formal religious oaths mandated by state constitutions were difficult to dislodge. Roy Torcaso, a bookkeeper from Wheaton, Maryland, learned exactly how difficult when, in 1959, he applied to become a notary public—technically a public office. Becoming a notary required that Torcaso sign his name to an oath confessing that he believed “in the existence of God.” Torcaso, an atheist, refused. In turn, the county clerk, Clayton Watkins, refused Torcaso his commission as a notary public. Torcaso sued, and two years later the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case Torcaso v. Watkins. Maryland’s state-mandated religious test, they decided, was unconstitutional.

Though numerous commentators praised the decision as a victory for religious freedom, some, like the journalist and historian Holmes Alexander, disagreed. As a private citizen, one is “entitled to be a pagan or an atheist,” Alexander wrote in the Los Angeles Times. But not when seeking a position of public trust. Unless a public official confessed that “there are universal rules superior to his own bodily and selfish hungers”—that is, unless a public official ascribed to a set of divinely authored and transcendent moral beliefs, unless he believed in God—it was inconceivable how he could “serve the larger interest of the public which has hired him.” Maryland’s test oath, he concluded, was “not a religious test but a moral one.”

On this last point, the court unequivocally disagreed. And its ruling has proved decisive. In states whose constitutions still include religious tests, they stand as unenforceable mandates, artifacts of an increasingly distant past. The kind of formal religious test Alexander endorsed is now constitutionally untenable.

But at the bedrock of his argument was an enduring assumption: that a public servant’s religious beliefs can serve as a sort of ethical bellwether. Indeed, Alexander was not the first to argue that religious faith—deeply held beliefs about human nature, right and wrong, and how we should treat one another—will often impact a candidate’s political views. Nor was he the first to argue that those religious beliefs demanded public scrutiny. And of course, he wouldn’t be the last.

 

 

THE man at the center of our latest religious-test flare-up is the forty-one-year-old conservative Russell Vought. After twelve years on Capitol Hill, including a stint as policy director for the House Republican Conference (chaired at the time by Mike Pence), Vought spent the past seven years as vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s lobbying and advocacy arm, Heritage Action for America.

Vought is also an alumnus of Wheaton College, a Protestant liberal-arts college just west of Chicago. Home to the Billy Graham Center (named for their most notable alum), Wheaton is best known as an intellectual hub of Evangelical Christianity. Less reputably, Wheaton is also known for a series of campus controversies that have garnered national media attention. In 2006, Wheaton made headlines for firing a philosophy professor because he converted to Catholicism. In 2008, another professor was fired when he failed to share the details of his divorce with Wheaton administrators.

More recently, however, was a theological skirmish that broke out at Wheaton over the relationship between Islam and Christianity. In December 2015, at a moment of rising anti-Islamic sentiment (in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris), Wheaton professor of political science Larycia Hawkins took to Facebook to declare that she would wear a hijab during the season of Advent as a symbol of solidarity with the Muslim community. In a Facebook post on December 10 (just three days after then-candidate Trump proposed his “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”), Hawkins explained that she stood in “religious solidarity with Muslims, because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” because “we worship the same God.”

Administrators at Wheaton found her comments troubling. On December 15, Hawkins was placed on administrative leave. In January, Wheaton began proceedings to terminate her employment. Hawkins had her supporters in the Wheaton community, but others, like Russell Vought, thought she had crossed an important theological line.

Vought argued that one cannot be saved, and indeed, cannot know the one true God, apart from a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ

In a blog post published on the Resurgent, Vought dove into the controversy—and into the theological weeds. Put simply, Vought argued that one cannot be saved, and indeed, cannot know the one true God, apart from a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Because Islam denied the divinity of Jesus (and thereby the immense significance of his death and Resurrection), Vought insisted that Muslims do not and cannot know God. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology,” he wrote. Rather, “they stand condemned.” Hawkins’s theological claim that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” was not just wrong, he insisted; it was dangerous. And it was just grounds, Vought argued, for her firing from Wheaton College.

A year and half after the Wheaton incident, Vought found himself defending the theological reasoning of his Resurgent article before, of all places, the Senate Budget Committee. Senator Bernie Sanders, who was raised Jewish but is not observant, repeatedly insinuated that Vought’s article—and, in particular, his claim that Muslims “stand condemned”—was deeply Islamophobic.

In his opening remarks, Sanders called Vought’s article “hateful,” “indefensible,” and “an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” In the question-and-answer session, Sanders continued to press Vought, trying to paint him as intolerant and disrespectful of those who hold different religious faiths. “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” Sanders asked, referring to Vought’s Resurgent article. “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?” Vought explained repeatedly, “I am a Christian,” and attempted to clarify the context of his argument. But Sanders had little patience. “This nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about,” he concluded.

Sanders’s line of questioning was quickly rebuked by those on the right. David French wrote in National Review that Sanders “personifies the arrogant contempt for Evangelicals that so often marks the secular American elite.” In the secular left’s persistent effort to “drive Evangelicals from the public square,” French insisted, they have become “the intolerant scolds they imagine their foes to be.” In “language and spirit,” French wrote, Sanders had “blatantly violated” Article VI.

Even some mainsteam and left-leaning publications saw Sanders’s remarks as problematic, if not an unconstitutional religious test. In the Atlantic, Emma Green wrote that Sanders “flirted with the boundaries” of our constitutional prohibitions. Ed Kilgore, writing in New York magazine, suggested that Sanders “came pretty close to embracing the kind of ‘religious test’...that is explicitly prohibited by Article VI.” “Complaints about religious liberty aren’t all specious,” he confessed.

But Sanders had his supporters as well. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, wrote in the Huffington Post that Vought’s beliefs about Muslims might compromise his ability to “implement policies and disperse resources without prejudice.” Individuals have the right to hold all sorts of private religious beliefs, Zogby insisted, “but when seeking a position of public trust aren’t we entitled to know whether these beliefs will impact their judgments?”

It was a familiar argument, but a stunning role reversal. Here was James Zogby, a Catholic representing the concerns of Arab Americans, arguing on behalf of a Jewish senator that a Protestant’s religious beliefs disqualify him from public office. For the vast majority of our nation’s history, Vought’s faith would have been an asset, a guarantee that he had the moral character necessary for public service. And for many Americans, it still is. But in our current historical moment, Vought’s Evangelical beliefs were viewed by a sitting senator as an indication of intolerance incompatible with democratic life. The shoe, it seems, is on the other foot.

Nevertheless, when Vought finally gets a vote before the Senate, he’ll almost certainly be confirmed. And Sanders’s “religious test” will, in all likelihood, become a historical footnote. Still, this latest skirmish over the relationship between religious belief and public life is a telling one. Though Protestant Christianity still holds considerable sway in American culture and politics, certain conservative religious values and beliefs have become increasingly marginalized.

In the process, Evangelicals have found themselves making arguments one would expect from an embattled religious minority, invoking constitutional protections like Article VI in the face of what they see as religious discrimination. For some, the irony is surely rich—Evangelicals bemoaning a “religious test” Protestants have imposed for hundreds of years. But for those on the Religious Right, there’s a deeper irony, yet.

When our founders adopted Article VI, it’s clear that they at least intended to prevent the federal government from instituting a formal religious-test oath. The founders knew that religious tests could be used to preserve the political influence of a preferred religion. Banning religious-test oaths, they thought, was a useful safeguard, a way to ensure that the federal government was unable to establish a state church. And in that regard, Article VI has done its job, and admirably so.

But in our public debates, Americans have presumed that our religious-test ban ensures—or at least points to—something much broader. That is, the “no religious-test clause” has long stood for the promise (though not the legal guarantee) that religious belief should never be a barrier to public office. The spirit of Article VI entails that every candidate, regardless of belief, deserves equal standing before the public.

Some religious minorities, and a host of democratic theorists (many following the lead of political philosophers like John Rawls) have argued that we could observe the spirit of Article VI if we enforced a stricter separation between church and state. That is, we could achieve meaningful religious equality and ensure the legitimacy of our laws, they maintain, if public decisions were explained using the political values and standards shared by all reasonable Americans—by using “public reason.” Democracy works best when we argue using shared or at least non-religious terms—not competing sets of sectarian religious beliefs. (To use a relatively simple example, in political debates over the funding of the federal food-stamp program, one might reference “the common good” instead of invoking a biblical mandate to feed the hungry.) If politicians would leave their religious beliefs at home, or, at a minimum, translate those beliefs into the language of our shared political values, then religion wouldn’t have to be drawn into our public decision making at all. The private faith of a public servant would cease to matter, some insist, if religion would remain where it belongs—in church, not Congress.

That, it turns out, is a big if. And especially for Evangelicals, who, for the most part, are not known for insisting on the removal of religious values from our political discourse. But they can’t have it both ways. If a candidate wants to inject religious values into political decision-making, then shouldn’t a candidate’s religious beliefs be fair game? Shouldn’t politicians and the public be allowed to judge candidates on those religious values?

To be fair, we don’t know exactly how Russell Vought will rely on his religious values in public office. Nor is it clear that his belief in the theological exclusivity of Christianity, which so exercised Sanders, is particularly relevant to his job description at the Office of Management and Budget. But in future elections or nomination hearings, it seems that we have two options. We can presume in good faith that a candidate will put their religious beliefs aside and explain their political decisions in relation to a reasonable and secular set of political values. Or, we can ask them about their religious beliefs.

If history is any indication, religious values, though shifting, will continue to be a part of our political discourse. And Americans will continue to argue over the place of religion in public life. If that’s the case, then let’s put the question to our political candidates, and ask: How will religious values inform your political decisions? And, just as importantly, why should they?

Admittedly, it’s an imperfect approach, one prone to the excesses of our democracy. But in a political contest with clashing religious, moral, and constitutional values, perhaps our best option is to ask our candidates to explain themselves. Then we can put the issue before the public, and with a little added transparency, the public will do what they would continue to do anyway. They’ll decide who wins.

Published in the February 9, 2018 issue: 

Eric Luckey is a Phd candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he studies the history of education.

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