Article VI, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution says that ‘‘no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.’’ At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, this provision, proposed by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, had been overwhelmingly approved. Only North Carolina voted no, and the Maryland delegation was divided. Only one delegate, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, objected to it, not because he favored religious tests but because he thought ‘‘it unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security against such tests.’’ In retrospect, Sherman’s assessment of the situation seems too optimistic, for religious tests were then used by most of the states, and the Article VI ban on their use by the federal government turned out to be one of the more controversial provisions in the new Constitution.
Religious tests for holding office had long been part of the Anglo-American tradition. In England they had been used to support the established Anglican Church by prohibiting non-Anglicans from holding office. In American, even after gaining their independence from England, eleven of the thirteen states prescribed such tests. Seven states required most public officials to be Protestants. Three required them to be Christians. Only New York and Virginia had no religious test for holding public office. Catholics and atheists were prohibited from holding office for the same reasons that John Locke had given a century earlier in his ‘‘A Letter Concerning Toleration.’’ The loyalty of Catholics to the American polity was in doubt because they were committed to obeying the Pope, the head of a foreign state. Atheists were suspect because, not believing in God, they had no incentive, it was thought, to keep their word or live virtuous lives. Although during the 1780s some religious groups—Quakers, Moravians, Baptists, Jews, and Catholics—protested religious tests as violations of liberty of conscience, their complaints usually fell on deaf ears.
Given the longstanding and widespread use of religious tests in America, the ban on them in Article VI of the Constitution was historically unprecedented and truly radical. Not surprisingly, several Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution, and even some Federalist defenders, condemned the ban on the grounds that it would allow Catholics, Jews, Muslims, pagans, and/or atheists to hold office. Although the objectors, for the most part, were not political leaders, their objections were expressed so often and widely that a number of leading Federalists, including Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, Isaac Backus of Massachusetts, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and James Iredell of North Carolina, defended the test ban, either in published writings or speeches at state conventions convened to ratify the Constitution. They gave both principled and practical reasons for the ban. The main principle that they emphasized was religious equality. Iredell, for example, said, ‘‘This article is calculated to secure universal religious liberty, by putting all sects on a level.’’ Backus emphasized that the ban would prevent any one religion from being established at the national level. Randolph agreed that it ‘‘puts all sects on the same footing.’’ The defenders of the ban also argued that as a practical matter a religious test could not prevent a wicked person from holding office, because he would not hesitate to affirm falsely any required religious belief, and, on the other hand, that it would often serve to prevent persons of ability and character from holding office.
In short, the presence of the religious test ban in Article VI engendered a vigorous and thoughtful debate over the meaning of religious liberty, but the debate was decisively won by those who favored the ban. The Constitution, including the ban, was ratified. Although a number of the ratifying conventions proposed amendments to the Constitution, none of them proposed that the ban be removed. After the debate, moreover, between 1789 and 1793, four states abandoned their religious tests for office-holding, and one modified its test to exclude only atheists. By 1798, of the then fifteen states only seven required such tests, and early in the nineteenth century most of them dropped or failed to enforce the tests. Not surprisingly, therefore, a few years after the Constitution was ratified, Mercy Warren, a leading Anti-Federalist, wrote that Americans generally favored ‘‘liberty of conscience without religious tests.’’
In spite of the emerging consensus against religious tests, one issue remained unresolved—whether the Article VI ban was meant to prohibit belief in God as a condition for holding office. Those scholars who believe that early Americans understood religious liberty to mean only no establishment or preference of one religion over others emphasize that the ban in Article VI is immediately preceded by a clause that says that all government officials ‘‘shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution....’’ Moreover, as James Iredell, a defender of the test ban, explained, an oath was universally understood at that time as a ‘‘solemn appeal to the Supreme Being, for the truth of what is said, by a person who believes in the existence of a Supreme Being and in a future state of rewards and punishments....’’ Affirmations were also considered to be religious in nature, for they were authorized to accommodate not atheists but Quakers, Moravians, and Mennonites who believed that the Bible forbids ‘‘swearing,’’ but not ‘‘affirming,’’ before God. In short, as James Madison admitted, a religious test is implicitly involved in an oath. For this reason, the South Carolina Ratifying Convention proposed, albeit unsuccessfully, that Article VI should be amended to read ‘‘no other religious test shall ever be required...’’
Even if the Article VI ban on religious test was not intended to eliminate laws requiring belief in God as a condition for holding office in the federal government, in 1961 in Torcaso v. Watkins the Supreme Court held that such laws violated the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
ELLIS M. WEST
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Baptists in EarlyAmerica; Non-preferentialism; Quakers and Religious Liberty; Ratification Debate, Civil Liberties in; Religious Liberty under Eighteenth- Century State Constitutions