Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states bluntly that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
By “religious test” the founders didn’t mean some kind of pop quiz. They meant that no person could be denied public office because of his religious views.
Although the Constitution bars these religious tests, for much of our history, voters have elected to apply one anyway: They told pollsters there was no way they were going to vote for an atheist – even if they liked his or her political views.
That may be changing. A recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners for the American Humanist Association found that anti-atheist prejudice is finally fading.
The survey found that three-quarters of all voters now say they would be happy to support a non-religious candidate as long as they agreed with that person’s views on the issues. Writing on the site Rewire, Jennifer Bardi noted, “Voters across party lines view a lack of religious faith as insignificant as long as the voter agrees with the candidate on most issues.”
Prejudice against skeptics of traditional religion never made much sense. Imagine a candidate who literally cut up a copy of the New Testament and removed all references to Jesus being divine. Imagine that same candidate advising his nephew, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” Imagine this candidate telling a friend in a letter that while he considered himself a Christian, he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, original sin or the Trinity.
As recently as a few years ago, many Americans would likely have rejected a candidate like that out of hand – and members of the Religious Right still would today. That means they’d be rejecting Thomas Jefferson.
Americans United is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, which means we’re not in the business of endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. But we can oppose religious tests, and we do. Public office must be open to everyone, no matter when, how, where or if they worship.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Americans shouldn’t ascertain where those who aspire to lead us stand on core issues. We’d like to see an America where all officeholders support the church-state wall and appreciate our country’s commitment to pluralism. Voters have every right to be suspicious of candidates who advocate merging religion and government and using force to compel people to live under narrow, dogmatic rules.
But refusing to vote for someone for no other reason than what that person thinks about God is short-sighted and can end up driving good people from public life.
More than 200 years ago, John Leland, a fiery Baptist cleric and advocate of church-state separation, said it best: “If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors … let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God – be he Jew, Turk, Pagan or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.”
That’s worth an “Amen!” – or, if you prefer, an “All right!”