The new religious test

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand to make up the first major-party presidential ticket that does not include a Protestant. MARY ALTAFFER / Associated Press
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan stand to make up the first major-party presidential ticket that does not include a Protestant. MARY ALTAFFER / Associated Press
Posted: August 17, 2012

One of the least-known but most revolutionary clauses in the Constitution appears in Article VI, where the framers stipulated that "no religious test shall ever be required" for federal government service. At the time of its drafting, the clause outraged some orthodox Protestants, who fumed that it would open the door for Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to run the country.

They needn't have worried. Nearly 200 years passed before the American electorate chose the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. And since then, we have reliably elected a Protestant every four years.

Last weekend, however, something happened that would have finally vindicated those fretful early Protestants - though it caused nary a tremor in American public life.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose founder was murdered while running for president in 1844), designated a Catholic, Rep. Paul Ryan (whom many early Americans would have referred to derogatorily as a "Papist"), as his running mate. And thus we have, for the first time in American history, a major-party presidential ticket that does not include a Protestant. The Republicans will nominate no theological descendant of Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, or Jerry Falwell; just a Mormon and a Catholic.

Have we therefore reached the end of our nation's long-standing unofficial religious test for its highest office? Yes, but only in part.

Since 2000, our major political parties have nominated presidential and vice presidential candidates from a historically broad range of traditions, including Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and several different strands of Protestantism. Yet amid this array of Western monotheism persists a core requirement that presidential aspirants adhere to a publicly recognizable faith, go to church periodically, and talk comfortably about a discernibly Judeo-Christian God.

The pious marrow of this unofficial religious test manifested itself soon after the Constitution was framed. During the heated election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's opponents' made hay by claiming he would uproot Christian churches and force atheism on the devout. A half-century later, Abraham Lincoln ran up against the same test when he was forced to assure voters that he wasn't the sort of person who "scoffed" at Christianity.

In 1952, eight years before the nation elevated a Catholic to the Oval Office, President-elect Dwight Eisenhower declared that "our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." For good measure, he added: "With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal."

Romney has learned this lesson well. He was sparing in his religious references last weekend, calling his new running mate a "faithful Catholic" who "believes in the worth and dignity of every human life." Keeping with the approach his campaign has taken toward his own faith, Romney took care not to dwell on the particulars of Ryan's. Instead, he emphasized the shared political commitment - specifically against abortion, but also more vaguely against gay marriage - that his faith entails.

Nonetheless, if recent elections are any guide, Romney and Ryan must maintain a steady drumbeat of God-fearing, Jesus-soaked expression until November. This will come easily to both given their deep Christian faiths - in a way it didn't to the more religiously unorthodox Jefferson and Lincoln, and in a way it wouldn't to a Jew, Muslim, or atheist today.

So here's an update of our unofficial religious requirements for the presidency: An unprecedented array of traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and, probably to a slightly lesser degree, Judaism, now qualify candidates for the office. But Eisenhower's Judeo-Christian criterion clearly abides.

This is not the founders' religious test for office, or even your parents'. But it's a religious test all the same.


Chris Beneke is an associate professor of history at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and the author of "Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism." John Fea chairs the history department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and is the author of "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction."

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