Saturday, January 05, 2019

‘No religious Test shall ever be required’

The US Constitution is very clear and unambiguous: “No religious Test shall ever be required,” it says, “as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That’s Article VI, Clause 3 of the US Constitution. Despite all that, some Christians want there to be a very specific qualification for office: Adherence to their religion alone. The Tweet above shows how things are nevertheless starting to change, despite the anti-American attitudes of a few who don’t understand how America's democracy or Constitution works.

The Tweet above is from Matt Laslo, a journalist with VICE, The Daily Beast, NPR, and Rolling Stone, among others, and the photo shows the diversity of religious (or not) texts chosen by US Representatives for their ceremonial re-enactments of their swearing-in yesterday. It’s a small sign that the USA is slowly moving forward, despite those who would stop or reverse that progress.

Naturally, no good deed goes unpunished, and certain Christians went apoplectic. As they always do when their worldview is challenged.

In January 2007, former US Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN, now the state’s Attorney General-elect) was sworn in as the US House’s first Muslim Member of Congress, and he chose Thomas Jefferson’s 1734 copy of the Koran. Some Christians and conservatives criticised him for that. One crackpot Republican issued a breathless fundraising letter declaring that Ellison’s use of the Koran threatened "the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America”. Whatever.

12 years later, US Representative Rashida Tlaib, a newly-elected Democratic Congresswoman from Detroit, announced that she, too, would use Jefferson’s copy of the Koran. The headline for a piece on Patheos accurately said “Christian Heads Explode” when they heard the news. Many of the responses were flat out unhinged, which is absolutely no surprise, but some responses overall have indicated an extreme ignorance of how US democracy, and its Constitution, works.

It’s important to note that the ceremonial swearing-in is merely that: Ceremonial, a photo op, and nothing more. The actual and official swearing in of House Members is done en masse—swearing in 435 Members individually would take forever. Absolutely NO religious text of any kind is used for the official swearing in. None. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Afterward, Representatives pose for a photo with their partner or other chosen person holding the book of their choice.

It is unconstitutional, and therefore illegal, to compel ANYONE holding office in the United States to profess a belief in or opposition to any religion, or to compel them to use ANY religious text when taking that oath. Similarly, no one can be compelled to say “so help me god” at the end of their oath—and that includes the US president, of course.

The main reason for all this is that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits ANY religious test for any public office. It, combined with the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, means that no person can be compelled to adhere to or oppose any religious belief system or symbols, including religious texts.

Initially, the prohibition applied only to federal offices, but two Supreme Court decisions changed all that. The first was Everson v. Board of Education (1947), in which the Court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause applied to the states, not just the Federal government.

The second case was a unanimous 1961 decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, which built on the Everson decision, making clear that the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment banned ALL religious tests for all public offices, whether federal or state.

Taken together, Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, along with the Everson and Torcaso decisions make the prohibition of all religious tests for public office absolute and unambiguous. This is not up for debate.

Instead, the “debate”, so-called, can only be on whether this ought to be the fact for the USA. Here, too, the answer is clear and unambiguous: Yes, this ought to be the case, and no religious test can ever be allowed.

Certain Christians live with the myth that the USA was founded as a “Christian nation”, which is utter nonsense, of course, as history clearly documents. But the myth nevertheless makes some Christians feel they’re losing “their” country when their religion isn’t, and never was, mandatory. They can’t seem to grasp that nothing has changed except that people being elected to various offices in the USA are becoming more diverse in their beliefs, which everyone ought to be able to agree is an undeniably good thing.

Naturally, some people cannot or simply will not agree that it’s a good thing. There’s a lot of “whataboutism” that follows whenever anyone asserts the fundamental Constitutional principle of freedom of religious belief—which also includes non-belief, obviously. Certain Christians, so-called, like to say that such-and-such religion is automatically “anti-American” and, therefore, all of its adherents are, too. Using that same logic, however, all Christians would have to be seen as “anti-American” because some of them wish to oppress and exclude people they see as in conflict with Christianity (this isn’t even getting into the extremist minority of Christians who want to imprison or even execute those they see as apostates). From a purely rational perspective, there is no difference if their logic is to be used, well, logically.

That’s precisely why the Founders of the USA put religious freedom into the First Amendment and prohibited religious tests within the Constitution itself. They knew about all the centuries of bloodshed that had happened because of religious conflict, and that even the USA’s parent, England, had experienced it because it had an established religion that at various points oppressed—sometimes violently—those who believed differently. They wanted the new United States to be able to avoid those centuries-old religious hatreds.

So, when certain Christians melt down because a duly and democratically elected official chooses to be sworn in on anything other than a copy of the Christian Bible, including copies of the US Constitution (which, full disclosure, would be my personal choice) or even law books, they’re the ones being un-American and even anti-American. It doesn’t matter in the least what they think of the fact that the USA has enshrined religious freedom (the real and genuine kind, not the fake kind extremist Christians promote as a way to allow them to discriminate against those they hate). It doesn’t matter what their feelings are, nor whether they’re personally offended or upset that someone doesn’t use their Bible in a ceremonial photo op. The law and the Constitution are very clear that their feelings are irrelevant.

There is an extreme irony here. Obviously those who really do believe that the USA ought to become a “Christian nation”, or that only Christians should be allowed to hold elected office, etc., are absolutely free to express those beliefs. They’re also free to vote for candidates who believe the same thing, or to run for office themselves. And, if elected, such a person is free to try to advance that belief into law. But the reason all those freedoms exist in the USA is because of the same parts of the US Constitution, and the very same Supreme Court decisions, that established that people have both freedom of belief and freedom from religious tests.

Freedom means freedom for all, or it’s not freedom at all. Freedom to choose what text one uses when sworn into elected office is no different.

Related: "Faith on the Hill – The religious composition of the 116th Congress" from Pew Research

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