The ugliest byproduct of this year's protracted struggle for the Republican presidential nomination involves the unwelcome return of the discredited, dangerous old idea of imposing religious tests on candidates for public office.
Before Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign, exit polls from his landslide victory in the Louisiana primary showed a stunning 73 percent of Republican voters insisted it "matters that a candidate shares my religious beliefs" -- expressing the conviction that it's appropriate to judge a prospective president based on his theological orientation. Only 12 percent took the position that it matters "not at all" if a candidate's religious outlook differed from their own.
There's an obvious irony to this situation: Many of those same social conservatives who claim to revere the plain text of the Constitution seem determined to ignore its prohibition on religious tests for federal office.
Article VI, Clause 3 unambiguously states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." This sweeping language, adopted at the original Constitutional Convention two years before the First Amendment's famous prohibition on "establishment of religion," left so little doubt as to its meaning that not even the most imaginative jurists or politicians have attempted to interpret it away.
Professor Gerald Bradley of Notre Dame Law School flatly declares that "no federal official has ever been subjected to a formal religious test for holding office."
Of course, some fervent social conservatives will protest that the evaluation of legally qualified candidates based on their theological perspectives hardly amounts to a "religious test" officially banning aspirants from the ballot or public positions.
But most of the Founders objected even to informal religious tests and demonstrated a consistent willingness to confer positions of responsibility on those who did not share their religious beliefs.
I have seen this attempt before, and I expect (unfortunately) to see it again. It is the claim that some people’s unwillingness to vote for a Mormon somehow violates the Constitution. Medved can prattle on all he wants that “Many of those same social conservatives who claim to revere the plain text of the Constitution seem determined to ignore its prohibition on religious tests for federal office.” It remains the case that an individual decision to vote in a certain way based on the religious views of the candidate does NOT – not in any way, not even a tensie wensie little bit – violate the Constitution.
Even if, as Medved claims “most of the Founders objected even to informal religious tests” it remains the case that the objections of Founders do not form part of the Constitution, except to the extent that they put them into the Constitution. I have searched the Constitution high and low, including all the Amendments, and NOTHING there even hints at any requirement on why a voter decides to vote in a certain way.
It’s just not there. And would we really want it to be? Imagine the situation if reasons and motives within individual voters were part of the Constitution!
We can debate until the next election and beyond the merits of Mormons as candidates. Let’s face it, Mormons believe some very strange and weird things IF they actually know and believe all the things taught by the leadership of their group. Do those weird things have any impact on political policy positions? That is a very good question, one many Christians are going to have to answer this year as they go to the polls.
Are theological views isolatable from political views? I tend to think they are not. Does a willingness to believe weird and strange religious things call into question one’s general good judgment? That one is worth thinking about – I have no ready answer, but it is a question worth some consideration.
However individuals decide those and many related questions, it is well past time for Medved and his kin to shut up on the ridiculous claim that individual use of religious criteria to evaluate candidates is somehow un-Constitutional.