Religious issues were of grave concern to the Founding Fathers. So great was their concern that they placed in the body of the Constitution a prohibition against religious tests. That prohibition is contained in Article VI, Section 3, and states:
……” no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
The clause is cited by advocates of separation of church and state as an example of “original intent” of the Framers of the Constitution of avoiding any entanglement between church and state.
The religious test prohibition envisioned by the Founding Fathers was intended to prevent government from imposing a religious test as a prerequisite for holding office.
But the body of the Constitution was not the only place where reference to religious issues was placed. Four years later, in 1791, the First Amendment was passed as a part of the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
The First Amendment contained two statements regarding religion. So important was the desire of those who drafted the First Amendment to ensure separation of church and state, that the religion clauses were placed before any other clauses – even those clauses guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government.
As the provisions of the Bill of Rights were gradually applied to the states through the 14th Amendment, the First Amendment religious provisions were included as well.
Yet today, we have an evangelical culture which has determined that candidates for the presidential office should submit themselves to examination to ensure that their religious views are in line with certain religious perspectives.
This past week, Barack Obama and John McCain submitted to a “job interview” conducted by Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church – an evangelical mega-church not affiliated or controlled by any specific denomination. The event should never have taken place and reflects how fearful candidates have become of the force of the religious right.
This “grilling” of Obama and McCain is far from what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they included a clause that forbade a religious test. Their thoughts ran to preventing governments from requiring religious tests reflecting certain ideologies, but that long-ago concern has now surfaced in a new forum. But the danger in this new forum is that it is not subject to Constitutional constraints. The only restriction on this new form of religious test is the candidates’ refusal to participate in such a sideshow.
Unfortunately, neither candidate took the opportunity to refuse to participate, thus opening the door to future interrogations focused on religious beliefs. The Founding Fathers understood the danger in mixing government and religion, but they did not foresee the danger that a non-governmental religious “job interview” would be a prerequisite to holding office.