Perry, Bachmann, JFK and the Religious Test

NickGB’s post on Michelle Bachmann’s performance in the Fox News debate prompted a discussion in the comments and off-line about the scope of the “no religious test” provision of the Constitution.  What, if anything, does the Constitution say about the appropriateness of a religious wingnut becoming President of the United States?

Well, maybe the first place to look is the First Amendment, which covers freedom of speech, religious expression, assembly, petition, and the press.  As it turns out though, the First Amendment, which is both one of the most important and most commonly misunderstood provisions of the American Constitution, doesn’t say a thing about a religious test for office.  The religious test prohibition is instead found in Article VI of the Constitution, which predates the Bill of Rights: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  While not a part of the Bill of Rights, there is nonetheless an important intersection between the protections of Article VI and those of the First Amendment. 

Let’s take the situation of the Republican nomination for the 2012 Presidential election.  Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, two of the frontrunners for the nomination, are self-identified devout religious conservatives.  So what does Article VI of the Constitution say about their candidacy? Let’s start with what it doesn’t say.  This provision does not prohibit you or me from voting for or against someone because of their religious belief.   This provision does not mean that a candidate for office cannot criticize an opponent because of his/her religious beliefs.  This provision simply means that the government cannot enact laws or regulations that would prevent a candidate from running for office because of his/her religious beliefs. Michelle Bachmann’s belief in creationism is as permissible a reason to oppose her candidacy as her complete lack of understanding of how the debt ceiling works.  Congress cannot, however, pass a law stating that “Belief in evolution is required for a person to be President of the United States” (or replace “evolution” with “creationism”).

Some of the popular confusion over this religious test provision stems from John F Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for the Presidency, where many opposed his nomination and candidacy because he was a Catholic, and even challenged the protections provided by Article VI.  The controversy prompted this statement from JFK in a speech that we’ve discussed on PYM previously:

[N]either do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection. For if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly working to repeal it.

. . . [C]ontrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President.

I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.

I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views — in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.

But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith; nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.

If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I’d tried my best and was fairly judged.

But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

In that speech, Kennedy’s nominal defense of Article VI provision quickly segues into an  argument that a religious test would be pointless regardless.   Kennedy doesn’t, but could have argued that Article VI would protect his right to pursue the presidency even if he had said he would govern based on the teachings of the Vatican.  Kennedy was speaking to American voters, though, not Congress, and he knew that Article VI did not protect him from the will of those american voters who feared a Catholic president.   So Kennedy’s argument wasn’t really an Article VI argument, it was a First Amendment argument.   Kennedy’s speech communicated to protestants and other non-catholics that they had nothing to fear from a catholic president, because the First Amendment protected freedom of worship and prevented the government from having an established religion.  A Catholic President therefore couldn’t push Catholicism on non-believers even if he wanted to.  In this way, Article VI and the First Amendment work in tandem to protect the free expression of religion by ensuring that (1) nobody is disqualified from office because of their religion and (2) once elected, a religious president cannot turn around and force their religion on the American people.

While Kennedy embraced Article VI and the separation of church and state, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry reject this formulation and deny that the First Amendment means what it says.  They welcome the protection of Article VI of the Constitution, which prevents Congress from, for example, prohibiting religious fundamentalists from serving in the government, even while ignoring the clear intent of the Constitution to protect the american people from those who would legislate their religious beliefs.   They aren’t saying as Kennedy did — “you have nothing to fear from a Catholic President” — they are saying “Vote for us and we will bring our religion to government.”

So what are the takeaways here?

1)  Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t vote for a candidate based on their religious beliefs.

2) Don’t mistake that freedom for approval.  It is one thing to have the right to reject a candidate for their religious beliefs, it is another thing to do so.  It is sometimes helpful to focus not on the beliefs themselves, but the implications they have for how that person will govern.  How is a creationist likely to look upon federal spending on science, for example?  How about education?

3) Beware those who would use the Constitution to protect themselves, while ignoring the provisions that protect you, the voter.  The Constitution is, afterall, an enormous compromise between competing interests.  Candidates who ignore portions of that compromise are a risk to the future of this country.


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3 Responses to Perry, Bachmann, JFK and the Religious Test

  1. nickgb says:

    Kennedy’s speech shows that he (and, I suspect, most Americans) had a completely different view of the office. To him, it was absurd that he would ever have to make a decision in office that had anything to do with the creed of the Catholic church. But now we put all of this moral importance on presidents, and we want them to appoint judges who will enforce moral judgments instead of the law.

    If the right wing really hated activism on the bench, they’d have a movement to ban abortion constitutionally. But they don’t, they just stack the courts with right wingers and then decry the liberal bent that doesn’t exist.

    • dedc79 says:

      Yeah, good point. Some of the change would no doubt be pinned on Roe v. Wade (by conservatives, anyway). Many religious people took that decision as an affront to religion and their response, in many instances, was to push religion into the political sphere.

  2. Pingback: Doubting Douthat | Poison Your Mind

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