What is the Purpose of the Religious Test Clause?

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, February 6, 2018 9 comments

by Bill Fortenberry

Ever since the Constitution was first submitted for ratification, the final clause in Article VI has been a matter of strong contention among Americans. That clause, known as the religious test clause, simply states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It is frequently claimed that this clause represents the desire of the founding fathers to keep religion out of the government and to establish a secular nation. But is that really how this phrase was intended to be used?

To understand the true purpose of the religious test clause, we must look back to the Corporation Act of 1661. This was the first of three Test Acts which were implemented in England and which remained in effect until 1828. Under these acts, no one could hold office in England unless he swore an oath of fealty not to God but rather to the doctrines of the Church of England. This was the kind of religious test which the founders prohibited. They had no objection to biblical qualifications. What they objected to was the requirement that all government officials be forced to swear allegiance to the codified doctrines of an established church.

The wisdom of this objection can be illustrated by an examination of the different doctrines of the Christian churches on baptism. Some churches teach that baptism is necessary in order for one to become a Christian, while others teach that baptism is not necessary but merely symbolic. There is no reconciliation between these two views. Those holding to the first view often deny the Christianity of those holding to the second and vice versa. Therefore, if the founding fathers had permitted religious tests by saying that only Christians could hold office under the new Constitution, they would have placed us in the difficult position of allowing our government to determine which of these two views on baptism is correct. The churches would immediately have recognized that whichever church managed to obtain a majority representation in the new government would have the power to define all other denominations as non-Christians and force them out of the political arena entirely. This is exactly how the Test Acts were used in England, and it was one of the reasons that so many Christians had fled to America in the first place. Our founding fathers realized that the only way to prevent this abuse of the power of government is to eliminate the religious test requirements altogether.

That this is the view which the founders had in mind can be seen in the statement on this clause by Oliver Ellsworth. Mr. Ellsworth was one of the pivotal drafters of the Constitution, and he later became the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In his defense of the religious test clause, Mr. Ellsworth first explained what was meant by the term “religious test”:

“A religious test is an act to be done, or profession to be made, relating to religion (such as partaking of the sacrament according to certain rites and forms, or declaring one’s belief of certain doctrines,) for the purpose of determining whether his religious opinions are such, that he is admissible to a public office.”

He then proceeded to examine the most basic religious test possible and to demonstrate that it would be wrong for us to have such a test in America.

“If any test-act were to be made, perhaps the least exceptionable would be one, requiring all persons appointed to office to declare at the time of their admission, their belief in the being of a God, and in the divine authority of the scriptures … But I answer: His making a declaration of such a belief is no security at all. For suppose him to be an unprincipled man, who believes neither the word nor the being of God; and to be governed merely by selfish motives; how easy is it for him to dissemble! how easy is it for him to make a public declaration of his belief in the creed which the law prescribes; and excuse himself by calling it a mere formality. This is the case with the test-laws and creeds in England … In short, test-laws are utterly ineffectual: they are no security at all … If they exclude any persons, it will be honest men, men of principle, who will rather suffer an injury, than act contrary to the dictates of their consciences. If we mean to have those appointed to public offices, who are sincere friends to religion, we, the people who appoint them, must take care to choose such characters; and not rely upon such cob-web barriers as test-laws are.”

The final sentence of Mr. Ellsworth’s statement brings us back to our original question. Did the founders include the religious test clause in order to establish a secular government? Not at all. They simply placed the responsibility for the religious character of our government on the shoulders of the people themselves. In the words of John Jay, our nation’s first Chief Justice:

“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

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Faithful said...

So, now that anyone can hold federal (or state office for that matter) office with the most absurd, irreligious beliefs imaginable, & our nation's laws & courts are completely opposed to the sovereignty of God & the authority of His word, how is the forbidding of a religious test clause working out for us? Religious test oaths existed at the time the US Constitution was debated & ratified. Just about every State/Colony had one. And they were all very similar to Delaware's: "I, A B, do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration." Try to get pro-abortion laws & rulings accomplished when every federal official swears to that! Notice also that it is non-denominational. It excludes the unbelieving atheist & the believer in other religions/gods, like Muslims. Yes, the honest unbeliever would be kept out of office. That's the point. Just because some would like (God would still hold that person to his oath), doesn't mean that all officials would lie. Lastly, Ellsworth was very disingenuous. While opposing the religious test oath by saying people would swear to it without meaning it, he still supported another oath - the oath to support & defend the US Constitution. How did that work out? How many of our esteemed politicians actually respect the US Constitution & keep their oath to that document? All that was accomplished with the removal from the draft of a religious test oath clause was the replacement of it with a secular oath to a Constitution that is no longer respected by those who swear to uphold it. So, in a sense, Ellsworth was quite correct. However, I think some of our debates about church & state, as well as the morality that should undergird our laws, would not even be taking place, if the Founders had included a solid, non-denominational religious test oath.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I can understand your point of view when I consider just the period of history from the founding of America and forward to the present. However, when I look farther into history and see how religious test clauses have been used over and over and over again to justify persecution, I cannot help but disagree with you. Here are some additional comments from the founding era in regards to the religious test clause. There is a lot of wisdom conveyed in these comments.

In an address made to George Washington in 1789 the ministers of the First Presbytery of the Eastward said:

“Among the objections to the Federal Constitution we have never considered the want of a Religious Test, that grand engine of persecution in every tyrant’s hand.”[2]

Joseph Story addressed this clause in his Commentaries on the Constitution by explaining that it was intended to prohibit laws similar to the English Corporation Act and Test Acts. He then state that:

“It is easy to foresee, that without some prohibition of religious tests, a successful sect, in our country, might, by once possessing power, pass test-laws, which would secure to themselves a monopoly of all the offices of trust and profit, under the national government.”[3]

Tench Coxe expressed a similar view of this clause when he explained that:

“In England every Presbyterian, and other person not of their established church, is incapable of holding an office. No such impious deprivation of the rights of men can take place under the new foederal constitution.”[4]

Oliver Wollcott also understood the religious test clause in this manner when he said:

“For myself, I should be content either with or without that clause in the Constitution which excludes test laws. Knowledge and liberty are so prevalent in this country, that I do not believe that the United States would ever be disposed to establish one religious sect, and lay all others under legal disabilities. But as we know not what may take place hereafter, and any such test would be exceedingly injurious to the rights of free citizens, I cannot think it altogether superfluous to have added a clause, which secures us from the possibility of such oppression.”[5]

We could also consider the statement by Mr. Shute in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention:

“To object to the latter part of the paragraph under consideration, which excludes a religious test, is, I am sensible, very popular; for the most of men, somehow, are rigidly tenacious of their own sentiments in religion, and disposed to impose them upon others as the standard of truth.”

Then we have this statement from Edmund Randolph, another pivotal member of the Constitutional Convention:

“Although officers, &c. are to swear that they will support this constitution, yet they are not bound to support one mode of worship, or to adhere to one particular sect.”[6]

In addition to these men, the record includes the following statement from Mr. Payson:

“Relying on the candor of this Convention, I shall take the liberty to express my sentiments on the nature of a religious test, and shall endeavor to do it in such propositions as will meet the approbation of every mind. The great object of religion being God supreme, and the seat of religion in man being the heart or conscience, i.e., the reason God has given us, employed on our moral actions, in their most important consequences, as related to the tribunal of God, hence I infer that God alone is the God of the conscience, and, consequently, attempts to erect human tribunals for the consciences of men are impious encroachments upon the prerogatives of God. Upon these principles, had there been a religious test as a qualification for office, it would in my opinion, have been a great blemish upon the instrument.”[7]

Bill Fortenberry said...

Gov. Johnston rose to speak after Mr. Iredell. Here is his statement in full:

“I read the Constitution over and over, but could not see one cause of apprehension or jealousy on this subject. When I heard there were apprehensions that the pope of Rome could be the President of the United States, I was greatly astonished. It might as well be said that the king of England or France, or the Grand Turk, could be chosen to that office. It would have been as good an argument. It appears to me that it would have been dangerous, if Congress could intermeddle with the subject of religion. True religion is derived from a much higher source than human laws. When any attempt is made, by any government, to restrain men’s consciences, no good consequence can possibly follow. It is apprehended that Jews, Mahometans, pagans, &c., may be elected to high offices under the government of the United States. Those who are Mahometans, or any others who are not professors of the Christian religion, can never be elected to the office of President, or other high office, but in one of two cases. First, if the people of America lay aside the Christian religion altogether, it may happen. Should this unfortunately take place, the people will choose such men as think as they do themselves. Another case is, if any persons of such descriptions should notwithstanding their religion, acquire the confidence and esteem of the people of America by their good conduct and practice of virtue, they may be chosen. I leave to gentlemen’s candor to judge what probability there is of the people’s choosing men of different sentiments from themselves.

But great apprehensions have been raised as to the influence of the Eastern States. When you attend to circumstances, this will have no weight. I know but two or three states where there is the least chance of establishing any particular religion. The people of Massachussetts and Connecticut are mostly Presbyterians. In every other state, the people are divided into a great number of sects. In Rhode Island, the tenets of the Baptists, I believe, prevail. In New York, they are divided very much: the most numerous are the Episcopalians and the Baptists. in New Jersey, they are as much divided as we are. In Pensylvania, if any sect prevails more than others, it is that of the Quakers. In Maryland, the Episcopalians are most numerous, though there are other sects. In Virginia, there are many sects; you all know what their religious sentiments are. So in all the Southern States they differ; as also in New Hampshire. I hope therefore, that gentlemen will see there is no cause of fear that any one religion shall be exclusively established.”

Bill Fortenberry said...

After Gov. Johnston’s speech there was an objection made to the religious test clause by Mr. Caldwell who desired to prevent non-Christians from immigrating to America. He said that:

“Those gentlemen who formed this Constitution should not have given this invitation to Jews and heathens. All those who have any religion are against the emigration of those people from the eastern hemisphere.”

In response to this, Mr. Spencer also voiced his opinion on the matter:

“Gentlemen urge that the want of a test admits the most vicious characters to offices. I desire to know what test could bind them. If they were of such principles, it would not keep them from enjoying those offices. On the other hand, it would exclude from offices conscientious and truly religious people, though equally capable as others. Conscientious persons would not take such an oath, and would be therefore excluded. this would be a great cause of objection to a religious test. But in this case, as there is not a religious test required, it leaves religion on the solid foundation of its own inherent validity, without any connection with temporal authority; and no kind of oppression can take place. I confess it strikes me so. I am sorry to differ from the worthy gentleman. I cannot object to this part of the Constitution.”

Gov. Johnston then spoke again, and his comment ended the discussion of this issue. Here is the record of his statement:

“He admitted a possibility of Jews, pagans, &c., emigrating to the United States; yet, he said, they could not be in proportion to the emigration of Christians who should come from other countries; that, in all probability, the children even of such people would be Christians; and that this, with the rapid population of the United States, their zeal for religion, and love of liberty, would, he trusted, add to the progress of the Christian religion among us.”


[1] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a6_3s14.html

[2] http://books.google.com/books?id=rDMrAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA66

[3] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a6_3s27.html

[4] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a6_3s12.html

[5] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a6_3s17.html

[6] http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a6_3s24.html

[7] http://books.google.com/books?id=WYxKAAAAYAAJ&&pg=PA120

[8] http://books.google.com/books?id=WYxKAAAAYAAJ&&pg=PA148

[9] http://books.google.com/books?id=ccfZAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA192

Faithful said...

But the change in our country didn't happen overnight. Public officials of all stripes have gradually degraded as much biblical content in the laws of this country over decades and centuries. When objected to, the response is that mixing religion into politics is improper. If there had been a religious test oath clause (biblical) in the US Constitution, like Delaware's, how could anyone make the argument that something was too religious?

And so much garbage we have today, which grew out of past baby steps away from the bible, would have never happened. In other words, the religious test oath clause does establish a religion - that of secular humanism. Whatever the mind of man can conceive is okay, but God's word is not.

Bill Fortenberry said...

There have been thousands of examples of nations using religious tests for the exact same reason that you are talking about. However, I cannot think of a single example in all of human history where a religious test actually accomplished the goal of keeping non-believers out of office. Can you point to any examples of this?

By the way, as strange as it may sound, the prohibition against the use of a religious test actually has biblical support; for in the laws concerning the choosing of a king given in Deuteronomy 17:14-20; in the laws concerning the election of elders given in Deuteronomy 1:13 and Exodus 18:25; in the laws concerning the appointment of the princes given in Numbers 1:1-16; in all the Law of God, there is not one religious test given as a requirement for holding office

Faithful said...

The course of history in just about every nation there have been religious test oaths. It's America that has been unique. They are very successful. Look at Muslim countries with above 90% Muslim populations and rulers who are uniformly Muslim. The laws concerning the choice of a king included a test - he must be a resident Israelite, for a foreigner meant not just someone from another country but someone who worshipped a foreign god. The other passages presume that no one but a believer would be chosen by believers; it was the default religion. In any event, any person proposing a different god would have been executed before even running for office. So much for the bible supporting no religious test oath.

Bill Fortenberry said...

You mentioned the presumption "that no one but a believer would be chosen by believers," and I think that you have found the key to unlock this whole concept. Our founding fathers presumed that Christians would almost always choose other Christians to rule over them, and they gave us the opportunity to make that choice for ourselves. As you've pointed out, we do not have Christians ruling over us now. There can really be only one of two reasons for this situation. Either the Christians of America have failed to choose to be ruled by other Christians, or the Christians of America have failed to produce enough new Christians to maintain their majority.

The fault lies solely on us as Christians. It is true that our forefathers created the possibility for us to fail in this area, and it is equally true that they could have attempted to remove that possibility by enacting religious test laws. But we cannot blame the founders for our failure to elect good leaders. That fault lies squarely on our own shoulders, and there is no excuse for it.

Faithful said...

I have to agree with that last comment. However, my question is this: When did the slide away from the God of the bible begin - during the Obama administration, the Clinton administration, during the 1960's, or during the 1780's? As a possible clue to the answer, just read the founding documents of the Puritans, the Pilgrim, even the Jamestown colonists & compare them to the Constitution.

And let me give you my historical perspective. Knowing the history of religious warfare & controversy up until that time, I would bet that if I had been with the founders/authors of the US Constitution, I probably would have done just what they did. But we live in our time & can see the effects of the naivete that says, "We can trust those rational thinking unbelievers & compromised Christian believers, so let's not follow God's word that requires that only believers should rule over believers." We see that he end result is madness & God's judgment. So, why would we try to perpetuate that.

We can't look at today or even tomorrow. We need to look down the road to prepare future generations to believe that there is a truly biblical alternative to the secular, humanist, unbelief & nonsense & evil that some impose on us. Like I said before, I don't think that we would even be debating abortion, homosexual marriage, & transgender rights if the Constitution explicitly & clearly stated that the bible is the source of our law & only believers in that book can be public officials.

Lastly, we began violating God's law, Deut 17:14-5, when we decided to not forbid the promotion of unbelievers to positions of civil rule.