J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“No Religious Test Shall Ever Be Required”

Tea Party Nation, one of the many overlapping political groups that grew out of the Republican right last year, has sent out an email stating reasons to vote against Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Among them:

He is the only Muslim member of congress.
That’s factually wrong, as Rachel Maddow’s commenters pointed out; two Congressmen are Muslim.

It’s also directly contrary to the language of the U.S. Constitution, which states in Article VI:
…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
The Constitution doesn’t bar individual voters from exercising their private bigotries, of course. But Tea Party Nation’s message undermines that movement’s claim to comprehend and follow the Constitution better than anyone else.

Indeed, this stipulation in Article VI is significant because it’s part of the original document, predating even the Bill of Rights. In an essay at History News Network, Prof. Jon Butler of Yale, among the most respected historians of religion in early America, argues that the legislative history of the First Amendment shows Congress choosing to expand the religious freedom it implied:
In June 1789 Congress declined a proposal from James Madison for a constitutional amendment about religion that said, “nor shall any national religion be established.” In September 1789, Congress rejected several additional proposals for a narrow religion amendment. These would have prohibited establishing “one religious sect or society in preference to others,” or “establishing any religious sect or society,” or “establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another.”

In the final version of the First Amendment, congressmen and senators used the broader word “religion,” and when discussing the issue of “free exercise” of religion they never limited its meaning to Christianity or Judaism.

No wonder. The new states in the 1790s already exhibited exceptional religious diversity—at least twenty-five different versions of Christianity, plus Judaism and Islam—and Americans seemed more fascinated than worried about religious diversity. In 1784 Hannah Adams of Medfield, Massachusetts, found a huge audience for her book “Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which have Appeared in the World from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day.”
That book is available online here. It’s mostly about Christian divisions and subdivisions, but Adams (shown above) discusses “the Mohammedans” in her Appendix, starting here and proceeding for thirteen pages.


RoJa said...

Well done

Daud said...

I've actually argued with my own mother about this issue (though not this specific case). Some people are utterly convinced that "religion" in this case refers to denomination and that the framers of the constitution were not thinking of other religions which lay outside their sphere of awareness.

John L. Smith said...

In the 1840s, there was the same religious bigotry going on about Catholics - especially in NYC. Raising itself again in 1960 with JFK's Catholicism, but nowhere to the extent that anti-Catholic feelings were the early part of the 19th century. Isn't it strange how the more things change, the more they stay the same?!

J. L. Bell said...

I suppose the notion that the Constitution protects only religions that its authors knew about would mean that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are protected, but Mormons, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists, and others in churches created in America since the 1790s aren’t.

And Methodists? Maybe half-protected.

Anonymous said...

Do these 2 Muslim Congressmen believe that apostates (ex-Muslims) should be killed, as the Koran teaches?

Do they believe that blasphemers should be killed -- a right which also comes under the 1st Amendment right to free speech -- also as the Koran teaches?

I'd really like to ask them how they can reconcile Islamic teachings with democracy.

Auguste said...

Perhaps this blog should affiliate with NPR?

J. L. Bell said...

And I'm sure you ask Christian congresspeople how they reconcile Gospel teachings with capitalism and warfare.

J. L. Bell said...

The only time I was on N.P.R., the show (The Bryant Park Project) was canceled a few weeks later. I'd hate for that to happen to other public-radio shows I like.

Daud said...

Dear Anon,
Do the Christians believe in capital punishment for homosexuality, adultery, astrology, being a disrespectful child, being a drunken son, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, perjury, incest, bestiality and witchcraft?

Would you like to ask them how they can reconcile these commandments with democracy?