This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27, 2011 - no test in Constitution

On the one hand, we honor it. We appeal to it. We think it matters.

On the other hand, it was and is riddled with profound mistakes.

The Constitution of the United States of America was crafted by some of the brightest people the world has known. They were also well-educated by the standards of the time. Of the 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution in 1787, 60 percent of them had attended college.

The striking idea at the heart of our founding document was that the purpose of government was to preserve individual liberties. Yet at the same time, it explicitly endorsed slavery, and denied women the right to vote.

Recently I've been reading about the many controversies that attended its adoption (see the writings of Cornell professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore). Here's one you don't hear much about:

In 1787 and 1788, the draft U.S. Constitution was harshly challenged because it was explicitly irreligious. Not anti-religious. There's a difference.

But unlike virtually every other political document of the age, the draft Constitution made no references to God. Religion makes only one appearance: Article 6 declares that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

And that was news. Eleven of the thirteen original states did have religious tests. Even in Rhode Island, founded on the principles of religious tolerance, and a place where many Catholics and Jews worshiped, you had to be a Protestant to hold office. 

Virginia and New York had adopted freedom from a religious test, however, probably under the influence of James Madison, who in the Federalist Papers wrote that too fervent a pursuit of religious opinions lead men "to vex and oppress each other."

But a Massachusetts Constitutional delegate protested that the no religious test clause meant that  "a papist, or an infidel" was just as eligible as Protestants. Delegates from New Hampshire and North Carolina worried about "pagans, deists, Mahometans [sic]," Jews, abolitionist Quakers, and "yea, an atheist at the helm of government." 

A Connecticut constitutional delegate proposed a one sentence preamble to the Constitution, to at least begin with God. A Virginia delegate proposed that the religious test be amended to require no OTHER test than a belief in God, who would reward the good and punish the evil. 

Both changes were overwhelmingly rejected by the convention.

Why? According to defenders of the article, public service should be open to any "wise or good citizen." There was as much a shortage then as now, and no religion seemed to have a corner on them. 

Baptist leaders defended the no religious test clause. Religion should be detached from "temporal power" lest it be corrupted by it. That wasn't just a fear, it was clear recent history, both in England, and in the colonies. Let the state try to promote a particular religious view, and tyranny followed. Religion was between man and God, not man and state. 

Religion just wasn't the business of government. Or as Jefferson wrote, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say There are twenty gods, or no God. It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket."

Another defender wrote that the time had passed "when nations could be kept in awe with stories of God's sitting with legislators and dictating laws." No less a personage than John Adams, just before the Constitutional convention, wrote that the architects of American governments never "had interviews with the gods or were in any way under the inspiration of Heaven." Rather, our governments were "founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery..."

So at last, the United States Constitution was approved, and the prohibition on religious tests was preserved. 

The clear separation between government and religion was further reinforced by the adoption of the First Amendment. But that's another story.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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