Article VI of the U.S. Constitution is not exactly light beach reading – but it’s crucial to the American system of government. Three paragraphs long, its language contains important provisions making it clear that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that judges and elected representatives are bound to follow it.
The provision also says that public officials will be required to swear an oath to support the Constitution, but then it goes on to add something else: “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
How did this stipulation end up in our founding document? You can thank Charles Pinckney, a 29-year-old delegate to the Constitutional Convention from South Carolina.
With his aristocratic air and powdered wig, Pinckney might seem an odd champion of such a provision. Yet beneath his noble bearing beat a heart with semi-radical impulses. Although religious tests were common in many state constitutions, Pinckney had no problem bucking the established order. At the federal level, he believed, they were not acceptable.
Pinckney relied on old-fashioned political maneuvering to get his way. When he introduced the “no religious test” proposal to the convention, it was shuttled off to a committee, which ignored it. Undaunted, Pinckney brought the proposal up again on the full floor. The measure was seconded by Gouverneur Morris and adopted by the entire convention “by a very great majority,” as one member put it.
The new Constitution had to be approved by the states, and here Pinckney’s handiwork sparked some controversy. Delegates in North Carolina seemed especially offended by Article VI. One man fulminated about the possibility of “pagans, deists and Mahometans” seeking office.
James Madison leaped to the defense of Article VI in the Federalist Papers, calling it one of the highlights of the proposed constitution. The provision remained intact.
Pinckney had ambitious plans beyond Article VI, but they didn’t all come to fruition during the convention. Church-state scholar Anson Phelps Stokes wrote in his 1950 three-volume Church and State in the United States that Pinckney also proposed a provision in the Constitution mandating that “the legislature of the United States shall pass no law on the subject of religion.” In addition, he pushed for a provision protecting the right of Quakers to refrain from swearing oaths and advocated for creation of a national university free from religious control.
Why was Pinckney so intent on securing religious liberty in the new nation? The answer remains unclear, but it might be something as simple as his study of America’s then-foe, Great Britain. During one speech, he blasted the British system of state-established religion for disenfranchising millions.
Pinckney was also a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson and might have been influenced by the Virginian’s strong pro-religious freedom bent. In any case, Stokes asserts that during the Constitutional Convention, Pinckney showed more interest in religious liberty than any member except Madison.
Today, Pinckney barely rates a mention among the Founding Fathers. And, sadly, many Americans don’t appreciate his handiwork. In fact, Americans seem to have imposed a de facto religious test for public office. Voters seem most comfortable with candidates who embrace a faith that is considered part of the mainstream.
Thus, we find ourselves in a curious situation: The Constitution mandates no religious test for public office, yet much of the voting public seems to want one that says that at the very least, a candidate must believe in God and be willing to incorporate religious rhetoric into public pronouncements. Charles Pinckney would likely not approve.