Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Meaning of a Religious Test

What is "religion" in the way our founders understood it? According to Webster's 1828 Dictionary, "RELIGION. Includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, and in man's obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man's accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties... the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion."

Now consider wording found in the 1796 Tennessee constitution:

Article VIII, Section II. "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State."

Article XI, Section IV. "That no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state."

By today's understanding those two sections seem in conflict with each other. Yet this document, written only a few years after the First Amendment was ratified, did not see a conflict. Requiring a belief in God is not what the founders meant by a religious test.

Even if we understand the historical basis for all this, few people today (even strict constructionists) would want to say that an atheist could not hold office. But according to history it would not be unconstitutional to do so.

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