Posts Tagged ‘Religious tests for office’

In each of the last two weeks we’ve seen a story that has made manifest the anti-Christian bigotry that exists on the front lines of British and American politics: last week, on this side of the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders’s unconstitutional imposition of a religious test for office* in his questioning of Russell Vought; this week, on the other side of the Atlantic, Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats.

What makes both cases interesting has been the extent to which the facts of each dispense with the usual pretexts and red herrings. Sen. Sanders, for example, could have found ample grounds for rejecting Mr. Vought’s nomination as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the nominee’s views of the federal budget. But in his remarks during the committee hearings Sanders was crystal clear: he was voting “no” because Mr. Vought had expressed belief in certain scriptural declarations about Jesus and eternal life. The final kicker in the Vermont Senator’s rejection of Mr. Vought was that Sanders didn’t just deem Vought an unsuitable nominee for OMB, he deemed him un-American: “this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” Hello, national covenant shaming.

Mr. Farron’s case strips away the usual pretexts even more perfectly: he was a political liberal who had consistently (so far as I know, without exception) defended the establishment of abortion rights and same-sex marriage in civil law. He had also, however, expressed faith in Jesus Christ, and this profession made him suspect to the Pharisees of Secularism in the media. These questioned him at every turn. Why? It couldn’t be because they disapproved his record of voting and public advocacy. It could only be that he didn’t hold to Correct Thinking.

This kind of thing isn’t new; neither are these episodes cause to sound the alarms. They are, however, cause for clear thinking and measured action among Christians in the English-speaking world. They reveal that the French Revolution’s laïcité is making a play to become a kind of Religious Establishment, and that its adherents have made great strides toward achieving that end.


* U.S. Const. art. I. sec. 6


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Occasionally I start a book thinking, “I’m gonna need a crate of TUMS® to get through this.” I try to read at least 2-3 such books every year. And sometimes these books pleasantly surprise me.

The most recent such pleasant surprise: Stephen Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars. Granted, the book’s title and introduction are annoyingly triumphalistic. Prothero’s historical analogies — Jeffersonians, pro-Mormons and pro-Catholics as stand-ins for today’s “liberals”; Federalists, anti-Mormons and anti-Catholics as stand-ins for today’s “conservatives” — are rather forced. In his treatment of the current wave of culture wars, Prothero grossly understates the significance of the political mobilization of anti-religious Left within the Democratic Party in the 1970s. The historical “wins” Prothero cites are neither so clear nor so stable as he seems to think — I mean, how much of an “expansion of the American family” really occurred when theologically-heterodox, nominally-Christian Jefferson succeeded theologically-heterodox, nominally-Christian Washington and Adams as President? And Prothero’s shifts between his own idiosyncratic definitions of “liberals” and “conservatives” and the contemporary, colloquial definitions of those words are often a little too convenient.

Still, by the time I reached the book’s end I was glad I’d read it in full. On church-state relations, Prothero is basically a Jeffersonian — that is, he’s not hostile to religious free exercise, so long as it doesn’t come with de jure or de facto religious establishments or religious tests for public office. Granted, Prothero stands toward the left end of the Jeffersonian ground between Jacobin secularists and religious establishmentarians. But given the current increases in the numbers of both Jacobins and establishmentarians, I’m generally glad to see a man holding onto any corner of the middle ground set forth in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) and the First Amendment.

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Reading up on the 1800 Presidential election is incredibly instructive. If the current state of American political discourse freaks you out — if you think it has acquired its unflattering features, its peculiar kinks and rifts, only recently — then read up on what Adams and Jefferson partisans said about one another.


Note the second item.

One discovery of particular interest: Had debates over the peculiar institution of chattel slavery not so dominated the years 1820-1860, the American Civil War may well have been fought over questions of Religious Establishment and Religious Free Exercise. The competing strange-bedfellows coalitions, had they formed along the lines suggested by the arguments over public theology in 1800, would have looked something like this:  New England Federalists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, which favored state Establishments and religious tests for public office, lining up against Southern Republicans, Midlands Quakers, and Baptists, who rejected religious tests for public office and favored broad accommodations for individual conscience and religious freedom.*

The Jeffersonian Republicans won the 1800 election and, simultaneously, Jefferson and his allies won the argument for broad religious accommodations and against Establishments. Their victory was so overwhelming that it remained remarkably stable for the better part of two centuries.

That Jeffersonian settlement of religious freedom, though, is vanishing. The New Secularists, who started organizing politically and mobilizing in earnest in the early 1970s, and the Christian Coalition that quickly followed suit, have both shown little interest in accommodations. While there are plenty of would-be Jeffersonians left — an odd collection of old-school Baptists, neo-Anabaptists, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and classical secular liberals — these parties are too divided by other issues to form an effective principled political coalition on this one.

Establishment and religious tests, therefore, increasingly look like the order of the day. Which leaves the following as the most live questions: Who will be the Establishment, and what will be the religious tests?

* Full text of Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom may be found here.

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