Few observers of the American political scene could have predicted the prominent role religion is playing in the current 2016 presidential election. Indeed, this election might still become one of the most religiously contentious in our history. There were hints of this from the beginning. A Republican candidate launched his campaign from a leading Christian university and pledged repeatedly during the GOP debates to do the will of God in office. Another candidate accused his party’s front-runner of being “unsaved,” of being a religious fake, and of being so ignorant of the Christian faith that it “boggles the mind.” The Democratic Party standard-bearer spoke boldly of her faith, while the leader of the Republican field even displayed a family Bible before cameras prior to the Iowa primary.
Evangelicals have continued to be a potent force in U.S. politics, though in this election they have proven increasingly fragmented. Their leaders have splintered, variously endorsing every candidate running for office. Even the pope entered the fray, welcoming the most left leaning of all candidates, Bernie Sanders, to the Vatican just prior to the decisive New York primary.
Now that the race has narrowed to a Clinton-Trump contest, we are sure to see even more fiery faith-based battles. Part of the reason for this is the religiously infused politics of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. She is a lifetime social gospel Methodist who thought nothing of taking her Senate opponents to task for violating the ethics of Jesus on such issues as immigration and who has claimed that her religion is the basis of her positions on same-sex marriage and abortion. Donald Trump, for whom religion is clearly not a familiar language, will have his hands full.
Yet this is what Americans seem to prefer. A recent Pew Forum survey revealed that more than half of all Americans would like to see wider discussion of religion in this year’s presidential race. All indications are that they are likely to get it.
None of this is new, of course. Americans have known religious bickering in their presidential politics since at least the moment Thomas Jefferson announced his intention to run for the office. What is new, however, is the current reticence among U.S. voters to press presidential candidates for specifics about their religious views. It is a reticence that does not serve our country well. Certainly we should hope for a change before the 2016 election ends.
We live in a religiously contentious age. We live at a time when what a president believes religiously and what he or she knows about the world’s religions is critically important. Yet we are used to pious mush and airy phrases when it comes to religion in presidential campaigns. We are used to “God bless America” at the end of a speech, and photos of a candidate attending church, Bible in hand.
We have begun to settle for such symbols over the far more important religious content of what candidates believe. As a nation we are hesitant to press for specifics. Much of this stems from a false sense that our Founders did not want personal faith explored in elections and so forbade religious tests for public office. What we seem to have forgotten is that while our Founders prohibited government-mandated religious tests for public office, they did expect and even hoped that the American people would always regard the religions of presidential candidates as important. This comes as a surprise to most Americans today, and so we should revisit the intentions of our Founders in this all-important matter of religion.
The framers of our Constitution considered a ban on religious tests a natural extension of the First Amendment. If Congress should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” then no single religion should dominate the federal government. Banning religious tests for federal office would serve this cause. Thus the language of Article VI, clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution: “. . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Obviously there were those who feared this provision. When the U.S. Constitution was being debated in state legislatures, there were loud protests over the exclusion of religious tests. More than a few were afraid that without such tests, non-Christians might ascend to public office. David Caldwell, a Presbyterian minister in North Carolina, was in favor of a religious test that would eliminate “Jews and pagans of every kind.”1 A Baptist minister named Henry Abbott complained, “As there are no religious tests, pagans, deists and Mahometans might obtain office.”2
These were common fears at the time: If we don’t have religious tests, then people of any faith can hold federal office. The answer of our Founders was clear and consistent: We want the people, not a simplistic religious test, to decide who is qualified for public office and who is not. The decision rests with the people.
This confidence in the people’s ability to examine the religion of candidates rings out from the writings of nearly every Founder. Consider, for example, the words of Richard Dobbs Spaight, one of the signers of the Constitution.
“As to the subject of religion” “no power is given to the general [federal] government to interfere with it at all. . . No sect is preferred to another. Every man has a right to worship the Supreme Being in the manner he thinks proper. No test is required. All men of equal capacity and integrity are equally eligible to offices…. I do not suppose an infidel, or any such person, will ever be chosen to any office, unless the people themselves be of the same opinion.”3
Clearly Spaight believed that while Congress may not establish a state church or restrict individual liberties, and while no religious test for federal office may exist, the people had the power to make religion a factor in their choices about political candidates. Consider also the words of Supreme Court Justice James Iredell, who was appointed to the bench by George Washington and who served from 1790 to 1799.
“But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. . . . But it is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own.”4
As with others in the founding generation, Iredell’s confidence was in the scrutiny of the people. Finally, consider the words of Samuel Johnston, a member of the Continental Congress, a member of the United States Senate, and a governor of North Carolina.
“It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans, pagans, etc., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President or other high office, but in one of two cases. First, if the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves. Another case is, if any persons of such descriptions should, notwithstanding their religion, acquire the confidence and esteem of the people of America by their good conduct and practice of virtue, they may be chosen.”5
Clearly this eminent Founder took his case even further than the others whose words we’ve considered. He argued that while it would, in his opinion, be unfortunate should the American people elect a non-Christian to public office, they might do it if they ceased to be Christians themselves or if they found a member of a non-Christian faith to have good character and be of virtue. Clearly Samuel Johnston placed his entire faith about such matters in the decisions of the American people. They would pay attention. They would evaluate. They would make the best choice at the time.
This was the counsel of the Founders regarding religion in the new American nation. Let the people be whatever religion they might choose. Let the states also be as religious as they wish. As important, be careful to deny the federal or general government any role in religion. Let it not establish a religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion—as the First Amendment would eventually say—nor let the federal government require religious tests. Instead, the people will choose—as an expression of culture, of heart, and of meaningful connection to God.
The Founders trusted that the people would be vigilant. They trusted that Americans in every generation would recognize the power of religion to shape politics and choose their candidates with this power in mind. Not as bigots. Not as those conspiring to cause their religion to prevail. Instead, the people would be vigilant because they would know the importance of religion in human affairs, and they would understand its meaning as they consider what is best for the republic.
The distinction our Founders made between federal and state governments has been removed through the years. The courts have read the Fourteenth Amendment as requiring that the restrictions on the national government should also apply to the states. Now the states may no longer require religious tests either.
What has not changed is the Founders’ expectation that the people should be the ultimate decision-makers about faith in public office. There has never been a more important moment for a reclaiming of this responsibility. Faith is as much a factor in the challenges of our time as ever. There are also more varieties of faith than ever. Our elected leaders must understand these faiths, just as the people must understand what these leaders believe religiously. This is what the founding generation expected of us. It is vital today that we live out the hopes of that founding generation.
The conclusion is that asking the important religious questions of our candidates is not un-American. It is not contrary to the thinking of the Founders, nor is it something done only by the bigoted or the conspiring. It is what our Founders expected and our times demand. It is also in the best interest of our nation. There should be religious tests—the tests of the people, not tests imposed by government.
As we enter the general election of the 2016 presidential race, religion will move front and center. According to the Pew Forum, this is as a majority of the American people wish it to be. In light of the lifetime commitments of Hillary Clinton, it is an emphasis she will likely encourage, though some opponents on the right might disagree with her conclusions. Perhaps this emphasis will be also welcomed by Donald Trump. Time will tell.
What is certain is that given the candidates involved in this all-important presidential race and given the religious underpinnings of our global challenges, there has rarely been a more important time for the American people to do the job entrusted to them by their Founders. Ask the questions of faith that must be asked. Make religion a part of their political decisions while always safeguarding religion from the intrusions of the state.
It is time, then, to live out that time-honored Celtic maxim:
That which thy fathers bequeathed thee
Earn it anew if thou would’st possess it.
1Jonathan Elliot,The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution,vol. 4, p. 199.
2Ibid., pp. 191-192.
3Ibid., p. 208.
4Ibid., p. 194.
5Ibid., pp. 198,199.
Author: Stephen Mansfield
Stephen Mansfield is a best-selling author and TV personality. His latest book is Ask the Question: Why We Must Demand Religious Clarity Form Our Presidential Candidates. He writes from Nashville, Tennessee.